The Potomac Conservancy Releases Report Card for River’s Health

Posted on Updated on

The Potomac Conservancy has released their biennial report on the Potomac River, the second largest river draining into the Chesapeake Bay. The health of the Potomac River, due to its large area and population size within watershed boundaries, is very important to the health of the Bay. The Potomac Conservancy has issued the River a grade of B- in terms of overall health. Rising from a D to a C to a B- over the past ten years, the state of the Potomac River is improving. However, a number of different areas need to be addressed to continue to improve water quality in the Potomac and the Chesapeake.

Figures 1, 2, and 3 show changes to nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment loads in the Potomac from 1985 to 2014. Over this time period, there have been load reductions from these three major sources of pollution.

The improvements in overall health of the Potomac River are due in large part to reduced sediment and nutrient loads from agricultural activity and wastewater treatment plants.

Wastewater treatment facilities have undergone a number of upgrades to ensure that water discharged from facilities contains smaller concentrations of nitrogen and phosphorus. With higher standards now required by the EPA, upgrades to many wastewater treatment facilities in the watershed have contributed to cleaner waters in the Potomac River. (Between 2011 and 2015, there was a 13% increase in facilities adhering to stricter EPA standards).

Agriculture in the Potomac River watershed has likely contributed fewer nutrient loads because agricultural activity within the region is declining, as land is converted to accommodate urban sprawl. The Potomac River, which flows from Fairfax Stone, West Virginia to Point Lookout, Maryland, covers a large urban and suburban area. So, while agricultural runoff is decreasing, nitrogen and phosphorus loads in stormwater runoff from developed areas is still a major concern.

Within this report, the Potomac Conservancy grades a number of sub-indicators of river health, such as fish population, underwater grass abundance, and recreational use. These ratings are then examined together to determine overall health. While overall health of the river is improving, there are some areas that are actually doing worse, or showing no marked improvement from previous years. This is the case for water clarity and underwater grass abundance, which received a grade of C-. These two factors are important indicators of health in the Chesapeake Bay (underwater grasses provide food and habitat for marine species, and filter sediments and nutrients in the water, which can improve water clarity). Going forward, I would definitely like to see higher rates of recovery for these two indicators.

There is mixed news for the river’s fish populations. Certain species, such as shad, white perch, and smallmouth bass are experiencing population growth. The Bay’s rockfish population, however, has declined slightly over the past ten years. Many fish species are at continued risk of predation from invasive species such as the blue catfish and snakehead.

In terms of tidal water quality, certain conditions are improving, although numbers for dissolved oxygen, clarity, and chlorophyll A (a measure of algae), vary year to year. Chlorophyll A levels have declined over the last fourteen years. See Figure 4 below.

[We have been taking water samples from both the Potomac River (out of Great Falls), and Antipoison Creek, (which is just off of the Chesapeake Bay, close to where the Rappahannock River meets the Bay), and interestingly, found higher chlorophyll levels in Antipoison Creek. I’ll post more on our results later.]

Screen Shot 2016-03-31 at 3.25.26 PM
Figure 4: Tidal Water Quality

There was good news for recreational land use, which has gone up since the last report. Recreational use of waterways can be an indicator of improved water quality.

Protected land area has increased, from 1.8 million acres in 2011 to 1.9 million acres in 2013. This area equates to 26.6 percent of land in the Potomac River watershed.

Concerns going forward include rates of deforestation and development in unsuitable areas, and runoff from suburban and urban regions. Agricultural areas, while declining, could still do with the enforcement of Best Management Practices (BMPs). The amount of forested buffers (streamside vegetation which reduces agricultural runoff into tributaries), received a grade of C-.

It’s important to keep in mind that the results in this report do not come from the most current data. The Potomac Conservancy gathers its information from a number of institutions, such as the EPA and the USGS. There is a couple years lag time on data for many of these sub-indicators of overall health.

Information and graph source: State of the Nation’s River 2016, Potomac River Conservancy,

Dominion Power Agrees to Advanced, but Still Deficient Treatment of Coal Ash Wastewater at Prince William Co. Facility

Posted on Updated on

Dominion Power entered into an agreement with Prince William County late last night regarding treatment of coal ash wastewater at their Possum Point facility. Prince William was appealing the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality’s (DEQ) approval of a permit for Dominion Power to divert water from coal ash holding ponds into Quantico Creek. Concerns over this permit from the Prince William County Board of Supervisors were echoed by the state of Maryland and by environmental organizations such as the Potomac Riverkeepers and the Chesapeake Climate Action Network. While Prince William County has dropped their formal appeal of the DEQ permit, the Potomac Riverkeepers’ lawsuit still stands.

With the acceptance of last night’s new plan, Dominion agreed to increased testing and treatment of wastewater that will be discharged into Quantico Creek. A major water quality concern with coal ash wastewater is the presence of metals that are ingested by local fish populations and make their way up the food chain. These metals include selenium, copper, antimony, thallium, chromium, and hexavalent chromium. According to, Dominion’s new plan sets new water concentration limits on some of these metals, a “66 percent reduction in selenium, a 71 percent reduction in lead, a 66 percent reduction in copper and 50 percent reductions in antimony and thallium.” Chromium and hexavalent chromium are not mentioned.

Dominion will test wastewater before discharge at a laboratory disassociated with their company, with samples now set to be taken on an hourly basis versus throughout the week. I’m happy to see Dominion cooperating with local jurisdictions to ensure improved water quality at their facilities. However, I question whether treatment of coal ash wastewater under this new plan will be enough to minimize risk to aquatic organisms to the best of Dominion’s abilities. According to the Potomac Riverkeepers, arsenic and metal concentrations under the new plan are still of concern. I would also like to see a treatment plan include all harmful metals discharged from the facility’s holding ponds into Quantico Creek, for both chromium and hexavalent chromium.

With ongoing legal battles against Dominion Power’s discharge permit, there is likely to be more news on this front in the coming months.

Environmentalists Continue to Dispute Dominion Power Coal Ash Plans at Two Virginia Facilities

Posted on Updated on

This article by Steve Szkotak at the Richmond Times-Dispatch has a great summary on the continuing discourse between Virginia Dominion Power, planning to release coal ash waste into the Potomac and James River from two of their facilities, and environmentalists concerned with water quality at these two locations.

To review, two Dominion Power facilities, one in Fluvanna County, and one in Prince William County, recently gained permit approval from the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality to release coal ash wastewater into neighboring bodies of water. These two facilities have stopped burning coal for energy, but have millions of gallons of coal ash left over from previous operations. Dominion Power wants to release this waste into the James River, (from the Fluvanna County facility), and Quantico Creek, which flows into the Potomac River (from the Prince William County facility).

Dominion Power claims release will be slow, and in volumes the watersheds can manage. Environmentalists, however, are concerned over wastewater discharge loads, and the impacts this wastewater will have on the local creeks and rivers. The health of the greater Chesapeake Bay watershed and its species are also a concern.

Update to Coal-Ash Drainage in Potomac River

Posted on

Last month I shared a post on the drainage of coal-ash into the Potomac River at a Dominion Electric facility. The Possum Point Power Plant in Prince William County stopped burning coal in 2003, but operations left about 215 million gallons of coal-ash on-site in holding ponds. In January, the Virginia State Water Control Board, whose regulations are enforced by the state Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ), approved a permit allowing Dominion Electric to gradually drain water from the coal-ash ponds into Quantico Creek, which drains into the Potomac River.

This month, the Prince William County Board of Supervisors and the Potomac Riverkeepers (who have been monitoring arsenic and selenium levels in Quantico Creek), have banded together to challenge the approval of coal-ash drainage into the Chesapeake Bay Watershed, arguing that federal water laws are being overlooked. The Southern Environmental Law Center will be representing the Potomac Riverkeepers in the appeals process.

Likely to come up in the formal proceedings is the fact that even before the State Water Control Board approved the discharge of coal-ash in last month’s approved permit, Dominion Electric had already released almost 34 million gallons of water from its coal-ash holding ponds into the Creek. While Dominion claims that Virginia DEQ knew about and approved this operation, the Potomac Riverkeepers want to ensure that Dominion’s actions were legal under their former permit.

With the James River Association questioning a similar circumstance at a Dominion Electric facility in Bremo Bluff, Virginia, there is a lot of distrust for Dominion Electric, and disappointment with the DEQ among environmental groups and local municipalities when it comes to protecting water quality in our watershed.

(Source: Bay Journal)



Virginia Approves Permit Allowing Dominion Power to Divert Water From Coal-Ash Ponds into Nearby Waterway

Posted on

Last Thursday, the Virginia State Water Control Board approved a permit allowing Dominion Virginia Power to drain their coal-ash ponds at a Dumfries facility into the Bay Watershed, in a move that will exacerbate pollution issues in the lesser Potomac River Watershed.

Dominion Power operates the Possum Point Power Plant in Prince William County, where, until 2003, the company burned coal for power. While coal is no longer burned at this facility, 215 million gallons of coal-ash water remains on-site, in holding ponds.

Dominion Electric and environmentalists alike would like to get rid of this debris. Their desired method of removal however, is a point of contention, with Dominion wanting to divert debris into the nearby waterways, and some environmentalists and state senators calling for ash and sediment removal and relocation to a landfill.

Last week, the State Water Control Board sided with Dominion Power, approving a permit that allows the company to gradually drain the water from the coal-ash ponds into the neighboring Quantico Creek (a part of the Potomac River Watershed, and greater Chesapeake Bay Watershed).

The approval of discharge of the coal-ash water is allowing an on-going practice to continue, but not without consequences. Concentrations of arsenic and selenium (by-products of coal-ash) have been found in high concentrations in Quantico Creek, and in the past, monitors have found evidence of coal-ash seeping through pond linings.* Allowing Dominion Power to divert water from their coal-ash ponds into Quantico Creek will exacerbate water quality issues, endangering local fish and shellfish species. Fish in this immediate region (in particular bass and catfish) have already been declared too contaminated to eat. The recent permit will prolong consumption restrictions, not to mention poor living conditions for marine species.

The Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ), which is in charge of Dominion’s discharge permit, has previously made some concessions to environmentalists, including limiting the rate Dominion is allowed to divert treated water from the coal-ash ponds to the creek. However, the agency refuses to enforce further water treatments from these ash ponds, or seal off the drain from the ponds to the Quantico Creek altogether.

Opposing parties to the recent permit are examining ways in which to appeal this decision. Updates will likely soon follow.


* Water quality in Quantico Creek is monitored by members of the Potomac Riverkeeper Network, a group that finds sources of water pollution in our local waterway, and works to involve regulators to enforce environmental law. More on the organization to follow.

Sources: The Washington Post, The Bay Journal



Virginia Winter Crab Dredging Closed Again This Year

Posted on

The Virginia Marine Resources Commission (VMRC) issued their decision on October 27 concerning the winter dredging of blue crabs in state waters. The VMRC has elected to close winter dredging for the seventh year in a row, to protect the Chesapeake Bay crab population.

The VMRC must decide on a year-to-year basis whether or not to open winter dredging, based on what they call ‘trigger values,’or crab population numbers deemed high enough for winter harvesting. Trigger values for juvenile abundance of crabs must be at 291 million or higher; crabs of spawning age, or female abundance must be at 125 million for winter harvesting to occur. However, estimates made earlier this year for juvenile abundance of blue crabs was only at 269 million, and crabs of spawning age at 101 million. Both juvenile and female crab abundance were well below trigger values, leading to the recommendation to close winter dredging again this year. The VMRC took this recommendation into account, and elected to restrict dredging once again.

The full audio recording of the VMRC meeting concerning crab management can be found here.

USDA Awards Four Bay States $1 Million Each for Cleanup Efforts

Posted on

Virginia, West Virginia, New York and Delaware are set to receive $1 million each from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) as part of a federal effort to improve water quality in the Chesapeake Bay. Money will go toward farmers in the Bay watershed with stream access on their properties. Specifically, the money supports planting of vegetated streamside buffers on agricultural lands.

These vegetated streamside buffers, or riparian buffer zones, act as physical barriers to livestock, which might otherwise have direct access to pollute streams. Riparian buffer zones also reduce sediment and nutrient loads, running off from farmland, and entering the watershed.

The USDA is able to offer federal funds to Bay states under their Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP). According to the USDA, CREP and USDA funds (about $500 million in total), supplied to Bay states since 1996, have resulted in the planting of 7000 miles of riparian buffer zones, and “have prevented an estimated eight million tons of sediment, 16 million pounds of nitrogen, and four million pounds of phosphorus from entering the waters of the watershed.” (See

The USDA CREP program is voluntary. Funds are being offered to agricultural landowners who agree to participate in planting riparian buffer zones, and require financial support.

The $4 million going to Virginia, West Virginia, New York and Delaware is a first round of funding. A second round from the USDA will likely target Maryland and Pennsylvania- states with significant amounts of agricultural runoff to the Chesapeake Bay.

Oyster Garden Update

Posted on

If you’ve been following this blog for awhile, you know that we’ve been growing our own oysters in a floating cage off of our dock on Virginia’s Northern Neck. We started off with 300 quarter-size oysters, placed in a mesh bag, within the cage, last July.

300 Oysters at the beginning of our oyster gardening project. At this size, the oysters have to be placed within a mesh bag, which is placed in the floating cage.
IMG_1696 Three hundred oysters at the beginning of our oyster gardening project. At this size, the oysters have to be placed within a mesh bag, which is placed in the floating cage.

The oysters grew to be large enough to float freely in the cage, and eventually large enough to eat. We cooked the first batch just before Labor Day Weekend this year, opting to bake the first batch (the shells open on their own in the heat). We’ve since learned how to shuck, though!

Oysters out of the cage.
Oysters out of the cage.
Getting ready to roast.
Getting ready to bake.
The finished product.
The finished product.

We lost a few oysters to predation- mostly crabs- and with the number that have been consumed, we likely have about 200 left in the cage. Hopefully we’ll be getting some more ‘oyster babies’ soon and starting the process over again.

The remaining oysters floating off of our dock.
The remaining oysters floating off of our dock.

Weather Station Up and Running

Posted on

By Gary Greenwood:

I finally have our custom weather station working on our dock on Antipoison Creek on the Northern Neck. This is a key part of our water-monitoring project. The weather station collects normal weather info, as well as water depth and water temperature. The next step is to add data collection for a variety of water quality metrics, including dissolved oxygen, salinity and PH. By collecting all these values over a period of time, we will be able to look for correlations between the weather and water quality.

This weather station is totally custom, using quality off-the-shelf sensors integrated with custom software running on an Arduino. In addition to storing the data within our internal database, the information is also available on weather underground at KVAWHITE14.

I used a variety of components to build this station:

  1. Arduino Mega 2560 microcontroller
  2. Xbee radio to send the info from the dock to a computer in the house
  3. 30-amp solar panel, since there is no continuous AC power on the dock.
  4. Genasun charge controller and Panasonic 7.2AH battery to manage and store the solar for nights and shady days.
  5. Inspeed Vortex II anemometer.
  6. Inspeed E-vane
  7. Rotronic HC2-S3 temperature and humidity sensor from Campbell Scientific with 10-layer radiation shield
  8. Bosch BMP180 Barometric Pressure sensor from Adafruit
  9. Keller Acculevel water level transmitter, including water temperature
  10. Apogee SP-212 pyranometer
  11. Adafruit DS18B20 temperature (backup for the Rotronic)
  12. It’s all mounted on a two-part fiberglass mast from DXEngineering. The mast is screwed to the dock and one of the pilings.

See picture of the weather station below:


Eating Local Seafood in Virginia and California

Posted on

By Gary Greenwood

My wife and I are trying to not only eat a lot of fish, but locally caught fish and other seafood. So, in early July we enjoyed a perfect Sunday evening at Merroir, an oyster café in Topping, on the south side of the Rappahannock. The roast oysters were very local, and delicious. We also enjoyed Skate for our main course. Skate (probably Cownose Ray), is fairly common in the Chesapeake Bay in the summer. This one was prepared piccata-style, and it was delicious.

Roast oysters at Merroir.
Roast oysters at Merroir.

Cownose Rays are not considered invasive in the bay. Unfortunately, they enjoy young crabs and oysters, just as we do. Not many restaurants serve them, perhaps because they are a little hard to catch. We recommend you try it if you do see it on the menu.

Toward the end of July, we headed to northern California for a wedding. We chose to extend our trip in order to enjoy more of the wine and local seafood. We found wonderful local seafood wherever we went. We had a great lunch at Bouchon in Napa, and then headed over to Jenner for a couple of great meals at River’s End, overlooking the point where the Russian River meets the Pacific. Further up the coast we found Mendocino’s Café Beaujolais charming, with delicious food. Perhaps the nicest surprise was recommended by Blake, the river guide from Catch-a-Canoe who took us up the Big River to look at seals and third growth redwoods along the protected shoreline. Blake suggested we try Wild Fish at Little River. There we enjoyed excellent Halibut and Albacore tuna in a dining room with space for only 20 diners.

The biggest surprise was on our last night in San Francisco, when we went to Hog Island Oyster Company on the Embarcadero. In addition to Pacific oysters from five locations along the coast, they had Rappahannock oysters from Topping on the menu. I guess they are popular in San Francisco, since they were sold out that night. It was exciting to see Chesapeake oysters on the menu of a popular oyster-house in San Francisco.

Preparing fresh oysters at Hog Island.
Preparing fresh oysters at Hog Island.