Watershed FAQs

  1. What is the Occoquan Watershed?
  2. What Did the Downzowning Do?
  3. When Did The Downzoning Take Place?
  4. What Prompted the Downzoing?
  5. What Were The Background Issues That Led to the Downzoing?
  6. What Role Did the Board of Supervisors Play?
  7. What Types of Resistance Were Encountered in the Fight To Uphold the Decision?
  8. What Else Is In the Watershed?
  9. What is Presently Being Done to Maintain Water Quality in the Watershed?
  10. What is the Occoquan Coalition?
  11. What is the President’s Role in the Coalition?
  12. How Do Fairfax County’s Efforts to Improve and Maintain Water Quality Compare with Other Jurisdictions Nationally?
  13. What Can Current County Residents Do to Help Preserve Water Quality?
  14. What Do You Think the Future Holds for the Occoquan?

1. What is the Occoquan Watershed? – The OCCOQUAN WATERSHED consists of all the land, including the tributary streams, which drain into the Occoquan River and the Occoquan Reservoir, the watershed’s largest body of water. Fairfax County is one of several jurisdictions in this 600-square-mile watershed area that include parts of Prince William, Fauquier, and Loudoun Counties. Nearly a third of Fairfax County is in this huge Watershed. The DOWNZONED OCCOQUAN WATERSHED, described below, is but a small part of the OCCOQUAN WATERSHED.

The DOWNZONED OCCOQUAN WATERSHED came into being on July 26, 1982, when the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors amended the County Comprehensive . Plan. They downzoned approximately 41,000 acres of land in “the Occoquan Watershed” to an R-C District (Residential-Conservation), one dwelling per five acres. This Watershed is different from others in the Northern Region of Virginia. It constitutes an ecological reserve, sited in a rural setting and is designed to protect and preserve our drinking water today, as Fairfax County becomes more urban and developed tomorrow. Major commuter roads across the reservoir, running through the Watershed and large, man-made complexes do not belong there. They constitute a challenge to the ecological balance of this Down Zoned area.

2. What Did the Downzowning Do? – The downzoning successfully protected the water quality of the watershed by limiting land-disturbing activities. This includes limiting the number of houses that can be built to one per five acres and requiring stringent treatment of stormwater runoff. A recent county study showed that some of our healthiest streams with the best water quality are in the Occoquan Watershed. The reservoir now supplies safe drinking water to over a million residents in Northern Virginia. The downzoning limits the development in this area to no more than one residence per five acres. This ensures a minimum of pollution reaches the Region’s water supply.

3. When Did The Downzoning Take Place? – In July 1982, the FFCBOS amended the Comprehensive Plan and downzoned approximately 40,000 acres of land in the Occoquan Watershed to an R-C District (Residential-Conservation, one dwelling unit per five acres). In such a low density area, the County does not provide sewer or water services. Concurrent with the downzoning, the Board upzoned a portion of the land in the Occoquan Basin to an I-3 District (Light Intensity Industrial). The Board’s action to protect the reservoir and watershed was buttressed in the fall of that year, by the State Water Control Board’s announcement that the phosphorous and nitrogen levels in the Occoquan Reservoir made it the second most polluted lake in Virginia.

4. What Prompted the Downzoing? – In the 1960s and 70s, the Commonwealth and Fairfax County recognized that a serious water quality problem existed in the Occoquan Reservoir. Awareness of the problem led to construction of a sophisticated treatment plant and establishment of park land, but the County judged these actions to be inadequate in light of the rapid urban development in Northern Virginia and enacted a large scale downzoning on the watershed.

5. What Were The Background Issues That Led to the Downzoing? – Over a period of eighteen years, the FFCBOS has consistently supported the low density limitations in the watershed, despite lengthy and expensive lawsuits and many planning exception applications. Challenges to the downzoning are likely to continue. The watershed area appeals not only to residential developers, but to schools, golf clubs and other organizations looking for open space in a largely developed County. Many people look at the watershed and see “unused” land, failing to recognize that the watershed IS serving a high level of usage maintaining the public health by protecting the water supply. Just as pressures exist to use the watershed for houses and other facilities, transportation demands from intensely developed surrounding areas, particularly Prince William County, have raised the issue of using the watershed for major highways. In the last thirteen years, there have been proposals for Ridgefield Road, for a central parkway-to-parkway connector over the Yates Ford Bridge, and for a realignment of RT123 that would be sited in the watershed. The various land and transportation use issues facing us and our Board of Supervisors will continue to test both our and the County’s commitment to preservation of the watershed and the reservoir.

6. What Role Did the Board of Supervisors Play? – In 1979 the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors (FFCBOS) directed an Occoquan Basin Study, which focused on nonpoint source contamination, the diffuse pollution which results from land use. The Study, concluded in 1982, found that existing land use plans (combined with structural Best Management Practices (BMPs) and the UOSA facility) would NOT be sufficient to prevent further degradation of water quality in the reservoir. The Study recommended that the best land use BMP would be a density of one residence per five acres in about 2/3 of the watershed in Fairfax County, while more intense BMPs would be necessary in the remaining, urbanized area of the County’s watershed area.

7. What Types of Resistance Were Encountered in the Fight To Uphold the Decision? – The County has spent millions of dollars and untold hours dealing with litigation and board actions defending (successfully) the downzoning: the Original Downzoning Suit, the NVLand Suit/Balmoral, the Consideration of Additional Special Permit and Special Exception Uses (colleges, private schools, and clubs), the Ordway Road Sewer Expansion, the Jermantown Road/Oakton Sewer Lines, and the recent Randolph Williams, Inc. Litigation.

8. What Else Is In the Watershed? – The Occoquan Watershed lies within the jurisdiction of six separate localities: Fairfax County, Prince William County, Loudon County, Fauquier County, and the cities of Manassas and Manassas Park

9. What is Presently Being Done to Maintain Water Quality in the Watershed? – Today, people served by FCWA from its Occoquan source, as from its Potomac source, can be completely confident that their drinking water is the safest and most healthful available anywhere, and will remain so. In the course of this achievement, the Occoquan has become one of the most studied and monitored bodies of water anywhere in the world. It is also a model for water reuse elsewhere.

Among the actions taken by the Water Authority to preserve this leadership, is the Water Authority’s new Outreach Program, which provides grants to support citizen source water protection efforts and community activities related to water supply. The Authority will provide funding and technical support to qualified organizations that undertake watershed protection or water supply education projects.

FCWA is expanding its role in both the Occoquan and Potomac Basins, as they relate to our water supply. This effort supports short-term and long-term goals. In the short term, FCWA is better able to respond to watershed issues and integrate watershed activities into its operations. As growth in the Washington Metropolitan Area continues, water supply withdrawals and wastewater discharges continue to increase. The impact of such growth on Authority operations must be continually monitored and analyzed, so that appropriate responses can be made.

In the long term, FCWA is developing a Water Supply Master Plan. The Authority has always monitored the long-term water supply alternatives of the area. This effort is now becoming critical as regional water supplies approach threshold levels. Source water investigations and cost analyses must now encompass a wide array of technologies as well as the variety of sources available within the basin. The alternatives developed must minimize the risk of water shortages during low flow and drought conditions while continuing to provide a safe, economical supply for our customers.

10. What is the Occoquan Coalition? – The Occoquan Watershed Coalition (OWC) is a broad-based citizens group which was organized on December 7, 1994. The OWC works with many organizations as well as the Board of Supervisors to address issues confronting a defined area of the Springfield District. The boundaries include Union Mill Road to the west, Route 123 to the east, Braddock Road to the north and south to the Prince William/Fairfax County border. This defined area includes approximately 4813 homes with a population of approximately 16,426. The OWC By-Laws which define the OWC can be found elsewhere on this Web Site.

11. What is the President’s Role in the Coalition? – The President is a member of the three-person, OWC Executive Committee, as specified in its By-Laws. As such, the Executive Committee runs the OWC on a daily basis, frequently collaborating by email, telephone or in a meeting on key issues prior to reaching a decision of import to the Watershed’s well being. There are checks and balances on the activities of the President through the Executive Committee and the Elected 20 person Board of Directors, which will be expanded to 25 in 2003. The President does not and should not have unilateral power to render decisions within the OWC.

In the main, the President uses the OWC Committees, the Elected Board of Directors and the Appointed Directors-at-Large to examine issues important to protecting the Downzoned Watershed. The President’s role is to manage, direct and encourage the working members of the Coalition, and to serve as the coordinator of their activities. He generally encourages those who do the work for the OWC to represent the Coalition, as they are usually experts in the fields they address. The President’s job is to discover outstanding citizens with a variety of skills, talents and abilities; and get them engaged in the work of protecting the Watershed and the Region’s drinking water. When things go wrong within the OWC, the President takes full responsibility. When positive events occur, the President takes no credit, as a good leader must.

Finally, the President establishes strong, productive relationships with the key decision makers in and out of Fairfax County to include the Chairman of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors, Kate Hanley; Springfield Supervisor Elaine McConnell; Planning Commission Chairman Pete Murphy; other Elected Fairfax Supervisors and those in Prince William County and elsewhere in the Region along with their Staffs– plus many other individuals and stakeholders who may or may not be part of a formal organization.”

12. How Do Fairfax County’s Efforts to Improve and Maintain Water Quality Compare with Other Jurisdictions Nationally? – Fairfax County does an excellent job, but we can do more and we should. On March 14, 2002 The Occoquan Reservoir was 88% full, despite record, low rainfall, but water quality had not been compromised. The Fairfax County Board of Supervisors approved on that date, in conjunction with the twentieth Anniversary Year of the Downzoning of the Occoquan Watershed, the establishment of the ‘New Millennium Occoquan Watershed Task Force’ with representatives from appropriate County Staff Agencies, the Park Authority, Northern Virginia Soil and Water Conservation District, Northern Virginia Regional Commission, Northern Virginia Regional Park Authority, The Occoquan Watershed Coalition, Fairfax County Water Authority, Audubon Naturalist Society, Health Department, and Stakeholder Representatives.

This intensified study will identify what more the County should do to protect and preserve the Occoquan Reservoir and the reserve surrounding it. The Task Force efforts began in the fall of 2002 and will be completed by the end of the year. Following this major study, Fairfax County will be in an excellent position to compare water quality with other jurisdictions nationally and to take necessary action to improve its situation. The Task Force Conclusions and Recommendations will be placed on the OWC Web Site Archives and in the Accomplishments Paper, also on the OWC Web Site, as soon as practical in early 2003.

13. What Can Current County Residents Do to Help Preserve Water Quality?

  • Use water wisely every day.
  • Compost yard waste.
  • Keep storm drains clear and don’t dump. Storm drains carry pollution directly to your neighborhood streams and can harm people, plants and animals.
  • Properly dispose of litter and animal waste, making sure household trash is placed in a tightly sealed container.
  • Recycle used motor oil, antifreeze and car batteries. Call 703-324-5052 or click here for information about recycling.
  • Landscape your lawn, planting on bare spots to prevent erosion.
  • Join a stream team or watershed group. (See groups listed below.)

Contact Information

For more information about the Occoquan Watershed or to get involved in protecting our water quality, contact:

  • Fairfax County Department of Public Works and Environmental Services (DPWES) – (703) 324-5816
  • Fairfax County Health Department – (703) 246-2201
  • Northern Virginia Regional Commission (NVRC) – (703) 642-0700
  • Northern Virginia Soil and Water Conservation District – (703) 324-1460
  • Audubon Naturalist Society’s Webb Sanctuary – (703) 803-8400
  • Occoquan Watershed Coalition – (703) 503-0110
  • Friends of the Occoquan – (703) 271-0967

14. What Do You Think the Future Holds for the Occoquan? – Despite Northern Virginia’s enormous population growth, water quality in the Occoquan Reservoir has been relatively stable due in large part to management systems put in place in the early 1980s. Since then, however, increased population and an associated increase in impervious surface area have created a host of new threats to the watershed. Despite recent attention on possible effects of terrorist activities, the greatest threats to drinking water in the new millennium are more likely to be spills, leaks, and accidental discharges within the basins 590 square miles. The watershed’s local governments have taken the leading role to protect the watershed and these governments, and all stakeholders concerned must be vigilant and continuously protective of the watershed and the reservoir.

The need for protection will never end… More people will mean more pressure to use up the green reserves in the County, including the downzoned area. Citizens who want to have a place in Fairfax County where eagles fly and deer roam free will have to stand up and fight time after time again. Because of the OWC and the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors, someone will stand up, and that means the Occoquan will remain a jewel in Fairfax’s crown—an asset for Fairfax County.