water quality

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.






Water Quality Analysis of Antipoison Creek

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We have been collecting water quality data on Antipoison Creek for about 11 months now, sampling for nitrate-nitrites (NO23), phosphates (PO4), ammonium (NH4), and chlorophyll. Our data collection extends from last September to this May (with sampling ongoing). Last month, Gary, Libby and I visited with Dr. Lora Harris, an associate professor at the University of Maryland’s Center for Environmental Science (UMCES), who specializes in systems ecology and ecosystem modeling, to get input on how to analyze our water quality data.

Dr. Harris gave us several suggestions, one of which was to create a Nitrogen Loading Model (NLM) for Antipoison Creek, to determine if the creek is primarily fed by nitrogen coming in from the Chesapeake Bay, or from the watershed (land-based activity and runoff, groundwater leaching, and atmospheric deposition). Harris described the NLM as a type of box model, showing inputs and outputs in and from a watershed. (See Figure 1, from the NLM instruction manual below).

Screen Shot 2016-07-28 at 8.56.15 AM

The Nitrogen Loading Model, created by Mark J. Brush (VIMS), Lora A. Harris (UMCES), Juliette C. Giordano (VIMS), and Joanna K. York (UDEL) allows a user to put in data on land use and activity in a specific watershed- for us, Antipoison Creek. The model pulls in miscellaneous information on the watershed, such as atmospheric deposition, loads from point sources, and surface area of the creek. It also pulls in data on non-agricultural and agricultural land cover, as well as the fertilization rate and agricultural yield of each crop grown in the watershed.

Using a mix of applications including a GIS operating system (QGIS) and GoogleEarth, as well as a number of sources on Antipoison Creek and Lancaster County, we came up with estimates for the needed parameters. Once all the inputs were entered, and the model generated kilograms of nitrogen for groundwater input, wastewater input, direct atmospheric deposition onto water surface, and a total annual load of nitrogen (kg) entering the watershed, we contacted Dr. Brush to discuss our procedure and results.

Now that we have an annual watershed load for nitrogen to the estuary, we must determine if Antipoison Creek has a greater flux of nitrogen coming from the watershed and emptying out into the Bay, or if the Bay is primarily feeding the creek with an influx of nitrogen.

We will be working with Dr. Brush on this next step, as well as a more in-depth paper to share our work on the NLM model.

Source: Brush, M.J., L.A. Harris, J.C.P. Giordano, and J.K. York. 2015. Delmarva Coastal Bays Nitrogen Loading Model. Virginia Institute of Marine Science, Gloucester Point, VA.   Available at: http://www.vims.edu/research/departments/bio/programs/semp/models/index.php.

A Review of Virginia’s TMDL Assessment

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By Neil Saunders

Given the EPA’s recent interim assessment of the Bay States’ ongoing implementation of the Chesapeake Bay TMDL and the Third Circuit’s affirmation of the legality of the Bay TMDL, it is worthwhile to take a closer look at the findings of Virginia’s water quality assessment. While this assessment is relevant to the Chesapeake Bay TMDL, in that any sub-watersheds belonging to the Chesapeake watershed apply to the Bay TMDL, it encompasses all of the waterbodies in Virginia- not only those belonging to the Bay watershed.

Virginia may be on track towards Bay TMDL implementation, but current water quality in the state is still far from healthy. According to Virginia’s Department of Environmental Quality (“DEQ”) 2014 water quality assessment, a significant percentage of rivers, lakes, and estuaries are “impaired” in three out of the six designated uses in Virginia: recreation, aquatic life, and fish consumption.

The assessment sites the presence of E. Coli from agriculture, urban runoff, leaking sanitary and storm sewers, and domesticated animals as primarily responsible for the impairment of the recreation use. For aquatic life, low levels of dissolved oxygen concentration and nutrient enrichment are the primary cause of impairment. Specific causes for impairment of fish consumption are mercury and PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls). The remaining designated uses are shellfishing, public water supply, and wildlife, which have a much lower percentage of impaired waterbodies.

Additionally, a vast majority of lakes (81%) and estuarine waters (75%) tested are impaired for at least one designated use. River waters have a lower percentage of impairment (17%), but this figure does not take into account the 78% categorized as non-assessed due to insufficient data. DEQ utilizes two methods of data collection: DEQ-approved monitoring, which includes all monitoring performed by DEQ or individuals approved by DEQ, and lower quality, DEQ-non-approved monitoring, which includes outside data collection by citizen groups, the private sector, and other government organizations. Both types of monitoring play an important role in DEQ’s overall assessment methodology (p. 4). It is not clear from the report, however, why so much data for river waters are insufficient to assess.

The VA DEQ 2104 assessment is based on six years of monitoring between 2007 and 2012. The Clean Water Act requires every state to submit to the EPA a biennial review describing the quality of their navigable waters. Virginia uses a monitoring schedule that covers 1/3 of all waters every two years, so that all waters are monitored within a six-year period.

Unlike the EPA interim assessment, however, this water quality assessment provides a more accurate and immediate sense of what the Virginia’s water quality was in 2012. As the information in this report shows, despite Virginia staying on track for the most part to meet the Bay TMDL implementation targets, there is still a long way to go and a lot that needs to be done for the water quality to actually improve.

One of the biggest areas for improvement is monitoring. As stated earlier, almost 80% of river waters throughout the state are categorized as “non-assessed” due to lack of sufficient data. As a result, it is uncertain what percentage of these rivers are meeting their respective water quality standards, and what percentage are impaired or threatened. Unfortunately, a lack of sufficient monitoring- a problem which exists in most states- is more easily fixable in theory than in practice: understaffing at the agencies charged with conducting the water quality assessments as well as budgetary constraints severely limit the amount of waters that can be properly assessed.

One potential way in which monitoring can improve is through Virginia’s citizen monitoring programs. DEQ relies on citizen monitoring data to supplement its own data collection, and offers grant money to organizations through the state’s Citizen Water Quality Monitoring Grant Program. While DEQ cites 120 such organizations as providing data for the current assessment, not all data collected could be used because they did not meet DEQ’s assessment methodolgy or procedures. If more citizen-collected data could be used by DEQ, through additional citizen involvement and proper training, more waterbodies could be assessed, which would lead to more accurate assessments of water quality and more accurate changes to address water quality conditions.

Improved monitoring may not directly address other issues plaguing water quality, such as excessive bacteria or nutrient enrichment, but with more accurate assessments, Virginia can more effectively manage its regulatory framework to achieve greater reductions in pollution and better meet the goals of the Clean Water Act and Bay TMDL.

The information in this post was acquired from the report available on VA DEQ’s website: http://www.deq.state.va.us/Programs/Water/WaterQualityInformationTMDLs/WaterQualityAssessments/2014305(b)303(d)IntegratedReport.aspx#factsheets.

Current Water Quality Issues

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Articles I’m reading this afternoon dealing with water quality issues in the watershed:

Postponing Stormwater Programs in Virginia (Richmond Times-Dispatch)

Water Quality Improving Due to Air Regulations (Bay Journal)

Maryland Counties Lax in Monitoring Stormwater Runoff (Baltimore Sun)