The Virginia State Water Control Board approved in mid-December new criteria aimed at reducing the amount of algae plaguing the James River. The criteria include standards for “chlorophyll a” concentrations in the river, which are a measure of algae growth.
Allan Brockenbrough, manager of the Virginia Pollutant Discharge Elimination System program for the Department of Environmental Quality, summarized the scientific background for the change — which has been years in the making — at the board’s December meeting.
He said the agency ran 32 computer models to learn which pollutants should be reduced from regulated wastewater facilities to achieve the chlorophyll a standards. Of those models, only nine achieved the limits that had previously been set by the board.
Phosphorous levels appeared to have the strongest correlations with chlorophyll a reductions, he said. That was factored into the new standards handed down to regulated facilities, and the model was tweaked until the desired levels were achieved, Brockenbrough said.
Overall, water quality groups supported the new criteria for the James. Board members unanimously approved them at their Dec. 14 meeting.
“We are capping over a decade-long process to create scientifically defensible criteria for the James River,” said Patrick Fanning, Virginia staff attorney with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.
But Fanning and others wanted more from the new regulation. He said at the board meeting that the new criteria meet water quality standards “with only a very narrow margin,” which is why his group advocated for even lower phosphorous limits for facilities discharging to the James River.
Jamie Brunkow, James Riverkeeper and senior advocacy manager for the James River Association, agreed, adding that the groups wanted the regulation to apply to more than the tidal portion of the James, in order to include additional facilities.
The groups had also requested chlorophyl a limits for the York River. But the DEQ pointed out that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is developing more general criteria to address harmful algal blooms that are increasingly cropping up in water bodies in the country.