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Opinion: Letter to the Editor: Taylor Run and Vietnam Analogies
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Opinion: Letter to the Editor: Taylor Run and Vietnam Analogies

To while away the hours hibernating during Covid-19, my wife and I have watched Ken Burns’ award winning documentary “Vietnam.” I have noticed several strong analogies between aspects of the Vietnam War and the City’s proposal to bulldoze Taylor Run at Chinquapin Park in the name of the environment.

An important goal of the Vietnam War was “to win the hearts and minds of the people.” That proved to be complicated. Our allies and our enemies looked alike and villages that seemed friendly during the day could become hostile at night. Perhaps the most famous quote during the Vietnam war came from anonymous major, surveying a smoking village, who said “it became necessary to destroy the town to save it.”

The same could be said about the City’s plan to “save” Taylor Run. To reduce the erosion of phosphorus into Taylor Run, the City proposes a “natural channel design” project that would kill everything along a 100 foot by 1900 foot corridor. The devastation would include 269 trees in a diverse and mature forest, as well as all roots, topsoil, seeds, and rhizomes. Since the violence of this ghastly remedy extends below ground as well as above ground, it may be more damaging than napalm.

General Westmoreland adopted a different approach. He didn’t try to take and hold territory. He just killed as many of the enemy as possible in the hope that we could kill them faster than the North could send down reinforcements. Thus, he made our officers count how many of the enemy they had killed. Since promotions depended on how many enemy dead you reported, body counts became absurdly inflated. Nobody questioned outlandish casualty reports. So people up the chain of command, including President Johnson, thought we were winning.

EPA set up a similar but more intricate program to try to calculate how much phosphorus erosion natural channel design projects were preventing. For the most part, this calculation was based on science. But a peculiar loophole allowed cities calculating nutrients prevented to assume that every project in the Chesapeake Bay area had a very high nutrient level in the soil — the amount present around agricultural streams in Lancaster County Pennsylvania. Since cities wanted cheap environmental credits, they all calculated points based on this sky high unscientific assumption rather than taking local soil samples (which cost only $25 per test). In the case of Taylor Run, Rod Simmons’ samples show that the soil actually has less than a fourth of the phosphorus that the City assumes based on the bizarre Lancaster County default. Thus, the City is claiming 450 percent of the environmental credit that science dictates. This nutrient credit inflation is ruining the Bay’s nutrient prevention program just like enemy casualty inflation spoiled our intelligence in Vietnam. It also targets projects in low nutrient areas where little can be accomplished.

As a result of years of experience, EPA has learned a thing or two about how best to reduce nutrient erosion. EPA now advises against “natural channel design” projects, particularly in forested headland streams like Taylor Run, in favor of other strategies. EPA now condemns as counter-productive clear-cutting mature forests around streams to make way for construction. And EPA now requires all cities proposing projects to base credit calculations on actual local nutrient samples, no longer allowing them to assume that the whole nation has the high nutrient levels in Lancaster County Pennsylvania.

In light of EPA’s years of science and expertise, the Taylor Run project would never be approved as a new project for three reasons: First, using actual local phosphorus samples, rather than unscientific Lancaster County phosphorus assumptions, the project is so expensive nobody would build it; i.e., $77,000 for each pound of phosphorus erosion prevented. Second, the project would destroy the mature tree canopy in a diverse and treasured park and the forest canopy itself protects against nutrient erosion. Third, EPA no longer favors natural channel design projects, certainly not in upper headwaters streams.

By the time John Kerry came home from the war, it was pretty clear that the United States was not going to “win.” Nixon was seeking “peace with honor.” In his testimony to Congress, Kerry asked the haunting question: “who wants to be the last American soldier to die in Vietnam.”

So who wants to be the last local government to build a gruesome “natural channel design” project in a forested upper headwaters stream, in contravention of all modern expert opinion? Mayor Justin Wilson wants Alexandria to build it. He wants the project “grandfathered” in under the outdated guidance.

Jim Clark

Alexandria