Friends of Little Hunting Creek marks 20 years of creek cleanups


Credit: State Sen. Scott Surovell

Twenty years ago, a group of neighbors from the Stratford Landing neighborhood — appalled by the amount of trash floating down nearby Little Hunting Creek — banded together to pick up litter along the shoreline. Working in conjunction with the Alice Ferguson Foundation, an environmental education organization on the Potomac River, the group got other neighborhoods involved in cleanups over the years and started collecting massive amounts of trash.

The effort “kind of snowballed,” said Stratford Landing resident Betsy Martin, co-founder and president of the nonprofit Friends of Little Hunting Creek (FOLHC), who spearheaded the cleanups.

Determined to find ways to reduce the litter — which consists primarily of recyclable water bottles but also tires, shopping carts and other trash — FOLHC began advocacy efforts, lobbying local legislators to enact laws to reduce litter, and writing letters and demonstrating at the headquarters of organizations like the International Bottled Water Foundation, which indirectly contribute to the problem.

In 2011, then-Delegate Scott Surovell joined FOLHC for a cleanup, and the following year, he launched his own organized cleanups, focusing on the upstream sections of the creek. He also began sponsoring legislation designed to put pressure on retailers to better manage their shopping carts. It took several attempts, but in 2020, now-State Sen. Surovell succeeded in getting legislation passed that granted Fairfax and Arlington counties the authority to fine retailers for abandoned carts.

The new regulation seems to have mitigated the problem.

“In my first three cleanups, we took about 180 shopping carts out of the creek,” said Surovell. “Now, we get about eight to 10 per year. I think Wal-Mart does a much better job controlling their carts, but Costco carts have now started to appear in the creek along with other retailers.”

According to FOLHC’s own estimations, between 2006 and 2021, 1,803 volunteers at sites along Little Hunting Creek gathered 3,885 bags of trash and recyclables, 295 tires, 181 shopping carts and thousands of pounds of bulk trash.

Last year, Martin noted that several sites were cleaner than they had been in the past. Some of these improvements may been due to the trash trap that Fairfax County installed in April 2020. According to the county, between May 2020 and now, the trash trap has collected 1,672 pounds of trash — an average of 72.7 pounds per month.

Trash trap traps trash on Little Hunting Creek (Credit: NVCT)

Another litter mitigation program that Martin considers particularly successful is Operation Stream Shield — a county program enabling residents of local homeless shelters to receive a nominal stipend for removing litter and invasive plant species from local streams.

“That has been a great program — I think it’s made a big difference,” said Martin. “They’ve been very responsive; if we tell them we need help with a particularly overwhelmed site, they go clean it up.”

Besides focusing on litter prevention and cleanup, FOLHC is trying to improve community access to Little Hunting Creek. They are partnering with the Northern Virginia Conservation Trust (NVCT) and neighborhood associations to clear small areas where local residents can enjoy nature and views of the creek and wildlife. FOLHC has worked with NVCT and the Stratford Landing Citizens Association to clear trash and invasives, plant natives and lay down a wood chip trail for enhanced accessibility to the Little Hunting Creek Preserve, which is owned by the NVCT. Soon, benches will be installed there, and neighbors plan to install wood duck boxes. 

FOLHC currently is in talks with the New Gum Springs Civic Association and the Fairfax County Park Authority about creating a similar oasis for residents in Gum Springs.

FOLHC President Betsy Martin at the Little Hunting Creek Preserve

Not far from the Little Hunting Creek Preserve, construction workers are wrapping up the final stages of replacing the sanitary sewer pipe that runs under the creek. The underwater portion of the project is complete, and the construction team expects to finish the land-based portion by early June and wrap up work by the end of July, according to the project manager.

Other parts of the Little Hunting Creek watershed are currently undergoing restoration, including the Goodman and Brickelmaier streams in Hollin Hills, and a stretch of Paul Spring Branch at Sherwood Hall.

Trees installed at Brickelmaier Stream await fencing and mulch. (Credit: Fairfax County)

With all these improvement and conservation efforts in place, one would think that Martin could rest easy, but she still has work in front of her, including the April 30 cleanup project with Sen. Surovell and Del. Paul Krizek. After 20 years of litter collecting, her goal is to “see less and less trash in the creek,” so she can “get out of the business of doing it entirely.”

“I told them [the FOLHC Board] that I would resign after we collect 4,000 bags, so that may be the next step,” joked Martin.

Until then, she’d like people to simply “stop throwing trash at streams.”

For more information on Friends of Little Hunting Creek, stop by their booth at the 4th Annual Mount Vernon District Environment Expo on Saturday, April 23 at Fort Hunt Park or visit their website.

To participate in the Little Hunting Creek Cleanup on April 30, sign up via this Google form. Sen. Surovell encourages families to bring their kids as “children love participating,” and it enables them to learn about the trash problem.

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