Bay Journal

VA, Riverkeeper differ on how to handle algae in Shendandoah

State wants to use nutrient standard while activist seeks impaired waters listing.

  • By Leslie Middleton on September 09, 2013
Jeff Kelble, Shenandoah Riverkeeper, holds a clump of filamentous algae from the Shenandoah River. This shot was sent to EPA Region III in 2012 to document the extent of the problem in the river. (Alan Lehman courtesy of Shenandoah Riverkeeper)

For the last few years, John Lipetz has known that the chances are pretty good that he’ll encounter some ugly, smelly green stuff in the Shenandoah River when he takes kids out fishing during his “Fish and Explore” camps.

The whole point of Lipetz’ business is to hook others on fishing. “But when the kids start complaining that the river smells like a sewer, I know we’re going to have to move on. What I’d planned as an eight-hour day on the river becomes a two-hour day.”

Jeff Kelble, the Shenandoah Riverkeeper, knows that Lipetz is not the only one affected by the algae, which has regularly become so thick that wading, paddling and casting can be difficult at best and sometimes impossible.

As a former fishing guide who settled near the Shenandoah to raise his family, Kelble has a wide network of friends, fishing guides and riverfront landowners along the Shenandoah and its North and South Forks, who provide regular updates on fishing conditions and algal blooms throughout the year.

In 2012, backed up by these reports, photographs and some preliminary species identification by scientists, Kelble requested that the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality put the entire Shenandoah River on Virginia’s 303(d) list because the yearly algae blooms interfere with the public’s recreational use of the river. The 303(d) list, sometimes known as the “dirty waters list,” which is prepared by Virginia every other year and submitted to the EPA for approval. It identifies water bodies that do not meet water quality standards or their designated uses, such as public drinking water supply or recreational use.

But Virginia refused because its recreational water quality standard is presently regulated on the basis of bacteria (the kind from warm-blooded animals) – not algae.

Virginia water managers at the Department of Environmental Quality concede that the Shenandoah River has problems with excessive nutrients that are most likely the cause of the excessive algae.

John Kennedy, from DEQ’s Office of Ecology and Infrastructure, explained that a more direct path to potentially listing the river would be investigating whether Shenandoah River water quality is impaired by excessive nutrients. But Virginia does not yet have an EPA-approved standard for nutrients.

The DEQ is in the middle of a multi-year process of developing a quantitative nutrient standard, which is being guided by an academic advisory committee of water quality experts from Virginia’s public universities.

The committee is proposing a tiered screening approach that would require an initial visual screening for algae before commencing with extensive — and expensive — field sampling and laboratory work to determine whether nutrients are causing the aquatic life in the river to suffer.

Kelble understands this, but he’s concerned that the Shenandoah will not receive the attention and resources needed to resolve the problems if the river is not put on the 303(d) list. “We know that there have been problems in the Shenandoah River for over 10 years. There is sufficient evidence that the river system is out of balance ecologically. We can’t wait for the nutrient standards study,” Kelble said. “We need the river listed now.”

This isn’t the first time the Riverkeeper has requested that the whole Shenandoah River be listed as impaired. In 2010, just as the fish kills in the Shenandoah and Potomac seemed to be subsiding, the algae problem was getting progressively worse. That year, Kelble and others submitted a request to have the river designated impaired, but it was denied.

Jay Eiche remembers the massive fish die-offs on the Shenandoah in the mid-2000s. Eiche owns property on the North Fork of the Shenandoah River near Maurertown, VA. “We suffered through all of that — the fish kills — and now, every summer, when it gets hot, the algae is so widespread and pervasive, it is difficult to paddle and fish.”

“Before you can get a fish on the lure, you have to clear your line of algae. It used to be one cast in 10. Now it’s more like nine out of 10 casts,” said Eiche, who has fished all over the Shenandoah and Potomac River basins for 30 years.

Eiche knows that Virginia is concerned about implementing the Chesapeake Bay TMDL. But he’s concerned that pollution reduction goals for the Bay may end up trumping local water quality needs. “Doing good for the Bay is great, but we have problems right here. If the state were to list the Shenandoah as impaired [for algae],” says Eiche, “they would have to focus more on the Shenandoah.”

Jeff Corbin, EPA’s senior adviser for the Chesapeake Bay and Anacostia River, has been part of the conversations between EPA Region III, the DEQ, the Shenandoah Riverkeeper, concerned citizens and Earthjustice, the legal nonprofit working for the Riverkeeper.

“The Riverkeeper makes a valid argument that if you can’t swim or fish in it, there’s clearly some degree of recreational impairment,” Corbin said. “But it’s really part of a bigger issue, which is the need for a standard that is accurate and defensible.”

Ultimately, the EPA must decide whether the Shenandoah’s recreational uses are sufficiently impaired by excessive algae to warrant it being placed on the 303(d) list — or whether Virginia’s methodical approach of developing a nutrient standard that can be applied to the Shenandoah in the future is a better path.

On Aug. 20, David Sternberg, spokesperson for EPA Region III, reported that the agency is “still conducting its review of the report from Virginia, as well as the data and many comments received from the Riverkeeper and other members of the public, to determine the proper listing of the Shenandoah River for recreational use.”

Two weeks earlier, Lipetz’ 13-year-old son was on the banks of the Shenandoah River at the annual Shenandoah Riverfest in Bentonville, VA. After a couple of hours of teaching other kids how to cast, he reported back to his dad, “Every cast, we came back with ‘snot grass,’ ” the vernacular for the slimy algae that shows up at this time of the year.

Lipetz’ son probably doesn’t care whether the river is listed or not, but he already knows why it’s easy or hard to fish on the river and is learning how this affects his father’s business. But Lipetz says, “I work with parents who are highly aware of where I take their kids.

“I want this river to be there for them and for their children.”

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About Leslie Middleton

Leslie Middleton writes about water quality, public access, and the special places of the Chesapeake Bay region from her home in Charlottesville, Virginia.

Read more articles by Leslie Middleton

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