The Creek

About Little Hunting Creek

Photo: ©Philip Bogdan

Where is Little Hunting Creek?

The Little Hunting Creek watershed is located in the Potomac branch of the Chesapeake Bay watershed in the southeastern part of Fairfax County, Virginia. It encompasses 7,067 acres (11.04 square miles) and is fed by three major tributaries: the South Branch, North Branch, and Paul Spring Branch.

The headwaters of Little Hunting Creek rise in Huntley Meadows Park, in the northwest border of the watershed, and the creek flows southeast to its confluence with the Potomac River east of historic Mount Vernon estate. The main stem of Little Hunting Creek is tidal 2.1 miles upstream of its confluence with the Potomac River.

A Little Hunting Creek History

Much of the land in the watershed was once owned and farmed by General George Washington. The original land grant from Lord Culpeper to George Washington’s great-grandfather, John Washington, and to Nicolas Spencer, was for 5,000 acres on or near Little Hunting Creek. In fact, the original name for his estate was the “Little Hunting Creek Plantation,” changed in 1742 to “Mount Vernon.”

In his book, The First Hundred Years at Mount Vernon, 1653-1753, cartographer Robert Moxham laid out the case for the Washington family living along the west bank of Little Hunting Creek, near the mouth, from 1735-38, not up on the bluff, a half-mile away. Moxham believed the site of the Mansion House was vacant until (father) Augustine Washington had a house built there in 1741-43 to anchor Lawrence to the plantation. Moxham pointed out that a detailed survey of the 5,000 acre Spencer-Washington tract made by the county surveyor in 1741 showed the Washington’s “quarter” at the mouth of the creek, while the Mansion House site was left blank. The 1741 Mount Vernon survey plat is on display at the Masonic Memorial in Old Town.

Richmond Highway (U.S. Route 1), which crosses Little Hunting Creek, is one of the oldest roads in the country and was once known as the Potomac Path, connecting the southestern part of Fairfax County with Fredericksburg, Maryland.

George Washington drew A Plan of my farm on Little Huntg. Creek & Potmk. R. in 1766, above. This and other colonial-era maps of Little Hunting Creek and environs can be seen in beautiful detail on the Library of Congress website.

Who lives there?

It’s not just people. Like most watersheds, Little Hunting Creek is a haven for a huge diversity of wildlife. Here is just a small sampling of that diversity, captured beautifully by human resident and photographer Philip Bogdan

You can also check out the eBird illustrated checklist for our local hotspot for some great information about the birds that you can find here.

Condition of the Watershed

The Little Hunting Creek Watershed was developed during a time when stormwater was treated by piping it off roads and yards and into the nearest stream as quickly as possible. For decades, Little Hunting Creek and its tributaries have functioned as giant storm sewers, and were damaged as a result.

About 92% of the watershed is developed, and 25% is covered by impervious surfaces, such as parking lots, roads, driveways, and roofs (yes, roofs – see below) . During rain storms, such surfaces produce large volumes of runoff at high velocity that damage streams. To halt and reverse the damage, both the amount and velocity of stormwater runoff must be reduced.

Assessments conducted by Fairfax County and the Commonwealth of Virginia over the past 30 years have found streams in the Little Hunting Creek Watershed in poor condition:

1. Streambank erosion and sedimentation

Stormwater runoff resulted in an actively widening stream bed and unstable banks in the upper reaches of Little Hunting Creek and its tributaries.

 

  • Head cuts (highly eroded stream banks as seen in the photo) are created by high volumes and velocities of stormwater runoff.
  • Sediment is carried downstream, and about 50% to 60% of the bottom of streams in the watershed is affected by sediment deposits.

2. Riparian (streamside) buffer loss

Over half the stream buffers in the watershed are deficient because they are too narrow, lack vegetation, paved, or covered with lawn.

3. Poor Water Quality

The 2005 Little Hunting Creek Watershed Management Plan found poor water quality in the creek due to:

  • Nutrient-enriched water—it contains too much nitrogen and phosphorus—and aquatic life is threatened by excessive algae in the tidal waters of Little Hunting Creek.
  • High levels of fecal coliform.
  • Low dissolved oxygen in the North Branch—at the minimum level needed to support aquatic life.
  • High levels of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) in the tissues of fish taken from the creek, leading the Virginia Department of Health to issue a health advisory for fish consumed from the creek.
  • Chlordane in sediment samples from the tidal portion of Little Hunting Creek, above the level that threatens aquatic life.

4. Low Biological Health

As of 2005, stream habitat quality was rated as poor or very poor for 73% of the length of streams in the watershed, and fair for 27%. None of the streams had any portion rated as good or excellent.

  • Macroinvertebrate assessment ranking was very poor. Diversity was low and only pollution-tolerant species lived in the streams of the watershed.
  • Number of fish species in upstream sampling sites was moderate.

Sources:

For more information about the condition of the watershed, see

Fun fact:

How Much Rainwater Runs Off Your Roof?

Take a guess: what is the volume of water that runs off a 1,000 square foot roof during a 1″ rain storm?

20 gallons? 50 gallons? 100 gallons? 1000 gallons? The answer is about 623 gallons. Here’s how to calculate the runoff from any given rainfall:

1.

Take the dimensions of the footprint of your roof and convert them to inches.

2.

Multiply the roof dimensions by the number of inches of rainfall.

3.

Divide by 231 to get the number of gallons (because 1 gallon = 231 cubic inches).

How Can I help Improve the Creek?

Homeowners living in the watershed have an important role to play!

Conservation starts in your own front yard. Learn more about creek-friendly lawn care, habitat creation and open space preservation on our conservation page. Click one of the topics below to start helping improve Little Hunting Creek today.

Photo: ©Philip Bogdan

Join Us!

Friends of Little Hunting Creek is a grassroots, volunteer-led organization that began as a group of genuinely concerned neighbors living near the creek. We need your help to protect this beautiful place – join us today!

Our vision is a beautiful, healthy creek that supports wildlife living in it and along its shores, and provides recreation and respite to humans that live nearby. We envision a shared sense of community responsibility for the health of the Little Hunting Creek watershed and appreciation for its beauty.

Photo: ©Philip Bogdan