Potomac River

Environmental Bills in VA General Assembly 2017 Session Will Focus on Water Quality, Fisheries

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I’ve been looking into which environmental bills and resolutions will be coming up at the 2017 Regular Session of the Virginia General Assembly. The state House and Senate will be meeting in exactly two weeks, on January 11. Several of the upcoming bills deal with water quality issues, as well as fisheries and habitat of tidal water. I’ll outline these proposed bills below, sorted via bill subject, and over the next few weeks, post updates on the states of these bills.

*Note: HB refers to House Bill followed by it’s number ID, SB refers to Senate Bill

Waters of the State, Ports, and Harbors 

HB 1423/ SB 818: This bill addresses water quality in the Potomac River Watershed by designating the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) to 1. identify point sources when combined sewer overflow outfalls occurs, discharging untreated wastewater into the Potomac River or its tributaries and 2. gives the DEQ the responsibility of following up with owners of these discharge facilities to come up with action plans to reduce combined sewer outfalls. By doing so, the state will be acting in compliance with the Clean Water Act and the EPA’s Combined Sewer Overflow Control Policy (owners of combined sewer overflow sites must be in full compliance with this federal regulation by July 1, 2027).

A combined sewer system is when wastewater and stormwater are carried to a water treatment facility using a combined system of piping (in a separate sewer system, only wastewater is treated; stormwater flows directly into nearby streams). During periods of heavy precipitation, combined sewer systems can easily be overtaxed, leading to overflows of untreated water into streams and rivers. To my knowledge, only three major cities in Virginia still have this combined system and of these, only the city of Alexandria falls within the Potomac River Watershed. Treatment centers in this area would be subject to HB 1423/ SB 818.

Therefore, related to this last bill is SB 819, which if passed, would require the City of Alexandria to assess discharges from its Combined Sewer Outfall Number 001 (which discharges into the Potomac River) by January 2029. The City of Alexandria would have to submit this assessment to the State Water Control Board, and include an outline of actions and control technologies that must be adopted to prevent overflow discharges to the Potomac River.

HB 1454 would designate a stretch of the James River as part of the Virginia Scenic Rivers System. When the General Assembly designates a river, or sections of a river, as part of the Scenic Rivers System, it means it possesses “superior natural and scenic beauty, fish and wildlife, and historic, recreational, geologic, cultural, and other assets” (Code of Virginia, 10.1-400 Definitions). From my research, I cannot tell that this offers any kind of direct additional protection of these waters or habitats, but the designation may be important for outside conservation efforts.

Water and Sewer Systems

HB 1460 addresses the regulation of private wells, and would allow Stafford County to set standards for the construction or abandonment of private wells. Stafford County would join a growing list of state counties already able to set stronger regulations for their private wells. While this is primarily a public health issue, abandoned wells can impact groundwater, which eventually seeps into bodies of water.

Fisheries and Habitat of Tidal Waters

SB 820 would impact the Virginia Marine Resources Commission’s (VMRC) management of the menhaden industry. The bill would require the VMRC to implement the Interstate Fishery Management Plan for Atlantic menhaden and adopt regulations to manage the industry.

Atlantic menhaden can be found along the North American coast, including the Chesapeake Bay Watershed. As these fish are used for a variety of purposes, they have a long history of being overfished. Menhaden are used as bait for other fisheries (including the crabbing industry), and for fish meal and the production of fish oil. Protecting the stock of menhaden in Virginia protects a number of fishery-related industries.






The Potomac Conservancy Releases Report Card for River’s Health

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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.]

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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, http://potomacreportcard.org.

Oyster Aquaculture in the Potomac River

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Last month, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA) released a study on water quality in the Potomac River, and the impact oyster aquaculture could have on the watershed. Published in Aquatic Geochemistry, the study stated that the nitrogen in the Potomac River estuary could be removed if 40% of the river bed was covered in oyster reefs, or used to grow oysters. (An adult oyster can filter up to 50 gallons per day). The Potomac River was once a place where oysters thrived, however, the same issues seen in the Chesapeake Bay- disease, overharvesting and eutrophication- significantly reduced the amount of oysters from in the tributary.

There are already ongoing projects, working on restoring oysters to the Potomac River. However, these efforts are running into roadblocks. The Baltimore Sun had a piece today on a proposed marina in Charles County, Maryland, which, when developed, will likely pollute a preexisting oyster bar. Although the oyster bar has been producing significantly low numbers of oysters in the past few decades, the bar is part of recent restoration efforts in Maryland.