Goose Creek -- 54 miles of river from northern Fauquier County to the Potomac River in Loudoun County -- has long been an important water source for the region. Increasingly threatened by development in the fast-growing area, the river and the efforts to preserve it are the stars of a new award-winning documentary.
“Goose Creek Watershed” recently won the grand prize at the 2021 Richmond Environmental Film Festival. The 10-minute movie features expansive footage of the tributary of the Potomac River that spills from the Blue Ridge Mountains and winds through Fauquier and Loudoun counties out to the Chesapeake Bay. The voices of local historians, environmental activists and others who love it are also part of the storyline.
The film was produced by The Goose Creek Association, a local non-profit focused on watershed protection; the goal was to draw attention to the beauty and significance of the waterway, as well as the risks it faces.
“Development is the biggest threat to Goose Creek,” said Lori Keenan McGuinness, the association’s co-chair, who said she was “delighted” with the award recognition. “I thought we needed to have an educational tool to explain what the Goose Creek is all about.”
McGuinness held screenings in the area and showed the film to members of the Fauquier and Loudoun boards of supervisors. “I thought the film was very well done,” said Mary Leigh McDaniel, Fauquier supervisor for Marshall District. “I hope we continue to preserve, protect and defend [the river] where we possibly can.”
In Fauquier, county leadership has taken steps to protect the river. According to Tom Turner, manager of John Marshall Soil & Water Conservation District, 50% to 60% of the river is now protected with livestock fencing and other measures.
But in Loudoun, one of Virginia’s fastest-growing counties, population pressure has made conservation more difficult. Housing development along Goose Creek has increased in recent years and on March 2, the Loudoun Board of Supervisors voted to rezone Goose Creek Overlook for residential development. The rezoning request, which passed in a 5-4 vote, gives the green light to the construction of 238 houses along Goose Creek, including nine acres that had previously been in a conservation easement. The board agreed to donate that land in exchange for a development with less density than current zoning laws allows.
“What’s the point of having the film if the board of supervisors don’t support protecting the Goose Creek?” said McGuinness, who followed the vote closely.
Phyllis Randall, chair of the Loudoun Board of Supervisors, who has seen the film, was one of those who voted against the proposed development. “You should never do anything to destroy your water source,” Randall said.
In the days following the Goose Creek Overlook vote, Randall approached colleagues on the prevailing side to ask them to reconsider at the board’s next meeting, March 16. “The film was very powerful,” Randall said. “It actually reignited my passion to try to bring the vote back.”
McGuiness said she hopes the film will help people to appreciate that a healthy river ecosystem is essential to the health of the region. She said the 386-square mile Goose Creek watershed supplies drinking water to much of Fauquier and Loudoun counties, including the city of Leesburg. It is critical for area agriculture and provides outdoor recreation that contributes to quality of life in the region, she said.
The film explores how the push for development, especially in Loudoun, has led to habitat destruction and pollution from run-off and soil erosion, which puts the river ecosystem at risk of contamination. “That part of Loudoun seems determined to be developed,” said McGuinness, “regardless of the river.”
In 2002, The Virginia Department of Environmental Quality listed the upper Goose Creek as “impaired” and has recorded declining water quality in succeeding years.
Recurring themes in “Goose Creek Watershed” are the boundless significance and timeless legacy of the river, as well as the relentless threats it faces.
In rural areas, which includes much of northern Fauquier, one of the relentless threats the film presents includes fertilizer runoff and E. coli from livestock. The film also shows how residents in these areas have been working to clean up the river, planting trees in riparian buffers -- strips of vegetation near a stream that filter pollutants and prevent erosion.
“On the agricultural side, we’re making good strides,” Turner said in an interview. “Even the old school farmers recognize that there’s a larger concern.”
To make the short film, McGuiness hired Sarah Huntington, executive producer at Lincoln Studios, based in Paris, to produce it. Huntington and her team, Drew Babb, writer, and Peter Buck, director, started production in the summer of 2018.
The filming took over a year, during which time the team conducted interviews with local residents about their connections with Goose Creek. One of those featured is Marvin Watts, a Goose Creek board member, who has led annual canoe clean up missions of Goose Creek. “It’s a very special stream in the midst of our Virginia culture,” Watts said in the film, “and it bears protecting with every fiber of our bodies.”
Drone footage captures both the watershed’s lush scenery and encroaching housing sprawl. Bettina Gregory, a former ABC News correspondent with ties to the area, narrates the film.
The combination of audio and visual storytelling, said Huntington, gives film a greater capacity to move audiences. “I really think it is the most powerful medium.”
“Goose Creek Watershed” may be seen at https://goosecreek.org/video/.