State stumbles toward cleaning its waterways

The state is battling court-ordered deadlines and a tight budget in its attempt to pinpoint causes of and craft solutions for pollution in more than 600 water bodies identified in a report released in July.

The Virginia Department of Environmental Quality’s Report on Impaired Waters and Water Quality Assessment released July 10 lists 44 percent of Prince William County’s rivers and streams as “impaired,” or unable to partially or fully support one or more uses: aquatic life, fish consumption, swimming, drinking or shellfish consumption.

According to the report, 4,403 miles of streams were impaired in 2000. That’s 1,568 more miles than were identified in 1998.

The increase is based on improved monitoring and stricter standards, the report stated.

“We have considerable challenges … to tackle this bear,” said Darryl Glover, DEQ manager of water quality monitoring and assessment, at a public hearing in Woodbridge on Wednesday.

Virginia is required to monitor the health of its waterways under the federal Clean Water Act. For each polluted water area, it must develop a Total Maximum Daily Load, or TMDL, which is a “planning budget” that determines sources and allowable levels of pollution.

A 1999 court order set a schedule for Virginia establishing TMDLs for its 665 polluted water sites.

Virginia will need to spend more money to meet the deadlines in the court order. By 2004, the state must have TMDLs in place for 81 of the 665 impaired water areas. That number jumps to 220 by 2006 with special emphasis placed on waters used by shellfish, a top priority for environmentalists.

“We know what we need in terms of money and manpower. We do not know where that is going to come from,” Glover said. “We have tried to get this to the attention of those who can give us more resources … We (the state) can’t even build the roads we promised two years ago.”

Even with adequate resources, developing and implementing TMDL plans is not a simple task, environmental planners said at the hearing, because:

Testing methods and benchmarks have continued to change, which raises the issue of quality control and the need to backtrack and retrace steps; and

Most pollution comes from more than one source.

It is rare to have an ongoing source of pollutants, said Alex Barron, the DEQ central office coordinator for fish tissue biological monitoring. A majority of sources are historical, like undocumented releases of polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, in the 1960s and 1970s that became part of the sediment and had to be located through extensive sampling, he said.

Each stream or river is tackled on a case-by-case basis sometimes hot spots can be isolated and cleaned, he said.

Runoff from pastures or land disturbed for logging or development are other sources of pollution with no single point of origin, speakers said.

In addition, some levels of pollution can be naturally occurring, such as low amounts of dissolved oxygen in swamps, Barron said.

In the Potomac and Shenandoah river basin, in which Prince William County lies, causes of waterbody impairments range from fecal coliform, caused by human or animal waste, dissolved copper in the Occoquan Reservoir, PCBs in fish, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH) in fish, acidity levels and low levels of oxygen.

Different pollutants lead to different loss of uses. For example, the 7.6 miles of Kettle Run in Nokesville does not support swimming, the 7.3 miles of Broad Run partially supports swimming, the 1,000-acre Occoquan Reservoir does not support aquatic life, and the 1-mile Neabsco Bay partially supports aquatic life and fish consumption, according to the fact sheet for the river basin.

The DEQ is taking written comments on the reports until Aug. 16. The reports, a public hearing slide presentation and an interactive map are available online at

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