Testing troubled waters

David Brickley, former director of the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation, led the charge of a group of citizen conservationists into the Potomac River on Sunday to test water clarity.

The idea was to wade into the river until they lost sight of their white sneakers.

Eight people showed up at Freestone Beach in Leesylvania State Park to test the waters and join Brickley in his campaign against water pollution.

“It’s a very non-scientific method, but I tell you, it’s a good indicator of water quality,” Brickley told Sid Broach as they walked through the park to the river shore.

Broach, a senior systems architect, and his wife Linda came with their two-year-old son Chad to join in the first “Potomac River Wade In.”

Former Maryland state senator Bernie Fowler began the custom of wading in the water in 1988 when he led a group into the Patuxent River.

Brickley and local environmentalist Kim Hosen along with Cliff Fairweather of the Audubon Naturalist’s Society took up Fowler’s custom and decided to initiate the tradition in Prince William County.

“I think we’re the first in Virginia,” Brickley said.

Brickley said the first wade-in was an “excellent beginning” that he hoped would make people think about the water in the river.

“The key is to have an appreciation and awareness of how important water quality is,” Brickley said.

Hosen said the boundaries of the 216,269 acre Potomac watershed stretch from the Potomac River in the east to West Virginia and from near Carlisle, Pa. south to the Rappahannock River.

All of Prince William County is part of the watershed and more than 1,000 miles of streams in the county drain into the watershed, Hosen said.

“Everything that happens in Prince William County winds up in the Potomac. Everything flows downhill and we all live downstream,” Hosen said.

Brickley said environmentalists and scientists divide pollution sources into two categories.

Point source pollution is easy to measure and control since it comes from factories, sewage processing plants and other industrial sources that are easily identified.

“A point source is out of a pipe. If it’s not out of a pipe it’s a non-point source,” Brickley said.

Non-point sources include run-off from farms, construction projects and lawns.

The Environmental Protection Agency, under the Clean Water Act, stopped most of the point source pollution problems, Brickley said, but non-point sources continue to add silt from farmlands and construction sites and lawn care chemicals to the river.

“I think three-quarters of the problem is in non-point sources,” Brickley said.

Although non-point pollution sources still concern Brickley, water cleanliness has improved from the time in the 1950s and ’60s when raw sewage from faulty septic systems found it’s way into the river and factories dumped untreated industrial waste into the water.

Jim Klakowicz, Leesylvania State Park ranger said several decades of effort have cleaned the Potomac River to the point that swimming may be soon allowed again at Freestone Point.

Officials began testing water quality when Leesylvania became a state park in 1984, and bacterial levels in the waters at the park have been safe for several years, Klakowicz said.

The main problem at Freestone Point was broken glass, mostly from beer bottles, Klakowicz said.

“During the sixties and into the early eighties,” Klakowicz said, “This was party point.”

“We’re talking a good 20 years of uncontrolled breakage,” Klakowicz said.

The only way to remove the glass from the river bottom at Freestone point was to wait until low tide and hand-pick the glass from stones and sand at the river’s edge, Klakowicz said.

“It’s taken all of these years of collecting it to feel like we’ve gotten it to a safe level,” Klakowicz said.

Brickley said he hoped next year’s wade-in would coincide with a ceremony to once again welcome swimming in the Potomac river.

Conditions at the river Sunday were windy and warm.

The warmth attracted boats of all sizes and the wind lifted white caps on the river’s surface that stirred the river and made it muddy.

The waders, all except Chad, lost sight of their sneakers in ankle-deep water.

Chad waded in to his knees, but was more interested in the boats speeding along the water than whether or not he could see his feet.

Staff writer Keith Walker can be reached at (703) 878-8063.

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