Five of the 14 Rockbridge County streams monitored by the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality don't meet federal water quality standards.
Ask a few bureaucrats why creeks that don't meet federal standards for swimming aren't posted and your questions will get lost in a sea of conflicting reports.
According to the DEQ report, all told, the damaged streams include 48 miles of waterway which either don't meet the standards for swimmable waters, or don't meet standards for supporting aquatic life.
The worst damage to a stream here is caused by opening the Boy Scout dam in Goshen.
The cause of most of the rest of the damage, according to the report, is fecal coliform - a nice way of saying excrement bacteria.
The standards themselves, as well as the report, are being questioned by either the DEQ or environmentalists.
Rod Bodkin, of the DEQ's Valley Regional Office in Harrisonburg, says that his agency's real complaint with the monitoring and federal standards is that no differentiation is made between fecal coliform that is a result of human waste, and fecal coliform that is the result of the waste of other animals. Cattle for instance.
And swimming in a creek that has had cattle wading in it is, as far as health hazards to humans are concerned, a whole lot different than swimming in a creek that has an open sewer running into It.
Local environmentalists such as Jay Gilliam, head of the Maury Chapter of the laze Walton League, have some
serious concerns with it because of the methodology itself, which is based on limited monitoring, as well as the inclusion of some streams while others that appear to be in worse shape are excluded.
For instance, Kerrs Creek is rated as "partially supporting" the standards for aquatic life, while Woods Creek, which has seen numerous fish kills over the years, is not included at all. And Moor’s Creek, below the truck stops in Raphine, has been taken off the list, though Gilliam says there's no reason why the water in that creek would have improved.
Gilliam and others also wonder why the Maury itself isn't included on the list, since portions of it are posted as being unsafe for swimming every time there is a heavy rainfall. That's because the Lexington Sewage Treatment Plant, in order to avoid being swamped, discharges raw sewage into the river. (That particular problem is expected to vanish this fall, as the new sewage treatment plant comes on line.) Samples taken from the river after the discharges show levels of fecal coliform that are well above the standards for water considered safe for swimming.
Dr. Douglas Larsen, district director of the Health Department, says that samples taken after the sewage plant bypasses show levels of fecal coliform that are double the federal standards.
Andy McThenia, who used to work for the Health Department's office of water programs here, and who owns property along the river, took a sample showing levels that were at least fifteen times greater than the federal standards.
Larsen says McThenia's samples were improperly handled and hence, probably contaminated.
There are two basic ways to test stream quality. One is to take water samples and chemically analyze them. That's what the state does. The other is to measure the quantity of life forms found in the stream. That's what Gilliam does. Gilliam's method doesn't measure fecal coliform. The state's method doesn't notice that about the only life left in, a dying creek is worms.
State officials and Gilliam say that their testing methods measure the basic health of creeks and rivers. Despite that, the state and Gilliam have come to very different conclusions about the creeks.
Gilliam says that in the latest report, the DEQ is too hasty to blame farmers for the "impaired" status of the Rockbridge County streams. "Our farmers are getting a bad rap," he says, "not that they don't have any culpability." But, for all anyone knows, he says, sewer pipes coming out of old houses and cabins along the streams could be equally- or more - responsible, depending on where those pipes are in relation to the stream monitoring stations.
"Anytime you can drive a wedge between farmers and environmentalists," he says, "developers win."
In not so many words, Bodkin says Gilliam's claim is ridiculous. The chances that the fecal coliform in the small streams is coming from old homes, he says, are "slim and none."
"They can't put out the numbers we're seeing." And, he notes, one cow produces as much waste in a day as ton people. If in the report the DEQ attributes "impairment" to agriculture, he says, it is because the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources attributes it to agriculture. "I have confidence in DCR," he says, because that department looks at erosion and sediment and the uses of land surrounding the state's waterways.
While the findings of the DEQ on most of the Rockbridge area streams included in the "impaired waters" listing are being disputed, there is no question about the first one listed.Little Calfpasture River, from the Lake Merriweather Dam to the confluence with the Calfpasture River.Although the DEQ report says that only the Little Calfpasture is affected by the silt, the finding is in dispute. Gilliam says that the Izaak Walton League's Save Our Streams monitoring indicates that the problems caused by the Boy Scout dam affects river life all the way downstream to Rockbridge Baths.
Applicable Clean Water Act goal and use standard: Aquatic Life use.
Finding: "Not supporting."
DEQ's biological monitoring station at river mile 0.70 near the continence with the Calfpasture River indicated severe impairment. As a result 1.0 stream miles were assessed as not supporting the Clean Water Act's Aquatic Life Use Support Goal ... . The cause of the severely impaired rating is excessive siltation. The source of the silt is from the annual maintenance activities performed on the dam."
"Stoneflies, mayflies and Caddis flies: you don't find them at Rockbridge Baths, but you do find them [further downstream] at Beans Bottom," he says. Between October and April when, historically, the dam's gates are open, Gilliam says, worms are about the only small organisms you can find in the river from the Calfpasture through Goshen Pass to Rockbridge Baths.
Kerrs Creek, from the headwaters, 11.49 miles to the confluence with the Maury.
Applicable Clean Water Act goal and use standard: Aquatic Life use.
Finding: "Partially supporting."
DEQ's biological monitoring station at river mile 1.54 indicated moderate impairment. Therefore, 11.49 miles of this stream was assessed as partially supporting the Clean Water Act's Aquatic Life Use Support Goal ... The primary source of pollutants is from non-point source agricultural runoff. DCR [the Department of Conservation and Recreation] has assessed this water body as having a high potential for non-point source pollution from agricultural lands."
Gilliam says the rating of the stream as ecologically impaired is "a mistake." The aquatic life sampling of the stream done by the laze Walton League over the past two years shows the stream to be healthy, he says.
Cedar Grove Branch, from the headwaters, 4.71 miles downstream to the confluence with the Maury. Applicable Clean Water Act goal and use standard: swimmable use.Gilliam says the farmers may "be getting a bad rap" from the DEQ when they don't deserve it. The tiny Cedar Grove Branch has its headwaters at Rockbridge Middle School, and Gilliam says that before blaming agriculture for the fecal coliform in the- sample, the DEQ should at least have looked to see if sewage from the school is getting into the creek.
Finding: "Partially supporting."
Sufficient fecal coliform bacteria criteria exceedances were recorded at DEQ's ambient water quality monitoring station at the Rt. 712 bridge (river mile 1.80) to assess 4.71 miles of this stream segment as partially supporting the Clean Water Act's Swimming Use Support Goal... . The primary source of pollutants is from non-point source agricultural runoff. DCR has assessed this water body as having a high potential for non-point source pollution from agricultural lands."Mill Creek, from the confluence with the Maury, headwaters 8.6 miles upstream to the headwaters. Applicable Clean Water Act goal and use standard: swimmable use.Actually, Gilliam notes, the Department of Conservation and Recreation says no such thing about Mill Creek.
Finding: "Partially supporting."
"Sufficient fecal coliform bacteria criteria exceedances were recorded at DEQ's ambient water quality monitoring station at the Rt. 631 bridge (river mile 0.04) to assess 8.60 miles of this stream segment as partially supporting the Clean Water Act's Swimming Use Support Goal... . The primary source of pollutants is from non-point source agricultural runoff. DCR has assessed this water body as having a high potential for non-point source pollution from agricultural lands."
The 1997 DCR Division of Soil and Water Conservation's watershed assessment report say's that there is a "high" potential for urban pollution in the Middle Maury/Mill Creek Watershed - pollution from parking-lot runoff and runoff from 1-81. Mill Creek is one of two watersheds in the Rockbridge area rated by DCR as having a high potential for being polluted by urban, rather than rural, types of contamination. The other is the Lower Maury/Poague Run watershed, which is not on the state's list of impaired waters.Hays/Moffatts Creeks, from the headwaters, 19.15 miles downstream to the confluence with the Maury. Applicable Clean Water Act goal and use standard: swimmable use.Gilliam says that the references in the DEQ report to the DCR report provides a good example of "misinformation." The DCR report is not a study of the current conditions of the waters themselves. Rather, it is a study of the potential for damage to the state's waters by non-point source" pollution - pollution that does not flow
Finding: "Partially supporting."
"Sufficient fecal coliform bacteria criteria exceedances were recorded at DEQ's ambient water quality monitoring station at the Rt. 602 bridge (river mile 1.41) to assess 19.15 miles of this stream segment as partially supporting the Clean Water Act's Swimming Use Support Goal ... The primary source of pollutants is from non-point source agricultural runoff. DCR has assessed this water body as having a high potential for non-point source pollution from agricultural lands."
from a pipe with a permit into a stream.
Since the state's monitoring of the streams is limited, Gilliam says, when it can't figure out what is going on, it relies, at least for reporting purposes, on the DCR's report on what might impact streams in the future.
Gilliam says that the Izaak Walton League's monitoring of Hays Creek has shown "excellent results" over the last two years. And he says that to designate the waters as "impaired" based on one sample, and to blame that impairment on farmers, is not fair. After all, he notes, conservation practices along the Hays Creek watershed have improved considerably over the past decade, thanks to a major federal grant.
For all the DEQ knows, Gilliam says, the fecal coliform found in the sample "could have come from a beaver taking a crap near the monitoring station."
DEQ officials say that just isn't so.
Whatever the cause of the "impairment," none of the streams listed has been Posted as being unsafe for drinking, swimming, fishing or anything else.
Posting the streams, Gilliam says, "is not anyone's responsibility. DEQ says it's not their job. The Health
Department says its not their job."
That, despite a three-year-old Health Department memo to recreational water users - that was not widely distributed - advising citizens to "look for posted signs and follow the advice on them."
No matter whose job it is - or isn't - the only stream being posted with warnings here is the Maury, and that posting is being done by volunteers.
Dr. Larsen has some doubts about the wisdom of posting warnings. To do so, he says, leaves the impression that non-posted rivers and streams are safe, which is not necessarily the case.
"No one can guarantee what has occurred where you're swimming," he says.
"Did I grow up swimming in natural lakes and every swimming pool? Yes," he says. So did everyone else.
"Do many get sick [from it]? No. Can you prevent anybody from getting sick? No. Will I ever drink river water? Absolutely not. No matter what you do," he says, "in heavy rains, there is runoff from fields. It you add to that a sewage plant, you have the potential of non-treated human waste [being in the river]." And even without the sewage bypasses at the Lexington plant, Larsen says, "You can't guarantee that it [the Maury River] can't be contaminated by natural forces." (The words "natural forces" came up several times during the interview with Larsen.)
The posting being done on the Maury, for two days following every discharge of raw sewage from the Lexington sewage treatment plant, warns swimmers to stay out of the river. The posting arrangement was worked out by the city, the DEQ, the Health Department, Jay Gilliam and Andy McThenia, who raised a fuss about the river not being posted.
But McThenia and Gilliam's efforts to increase monitoring of the river have met considerable resistance, as this correspondence between them and various state officials indicates. The first is a memo from the pair, dated June 2, 1998, to Dr. Larsen and Brad hewing, of the DEQ Harrisonburg office.
"As you are aware, there have been numerous millrace bypasses at the Lexington STP [Sewage Treatment Plant] due to the frequent and heavy rains recently. The City of Lexington, has addressed our concerns about this situation to the extent that they have produced some signs that we post whenever there is a bypass. These signs warn swimmers and other recreational users of the potential health hazards of contact with the river.
"We feel that the community needs more factual information as to the specific degree of danger that exists and how long this situation persists following these occurrences. We would like to request additional water quality monitoring specifically designed to measure human health risks that exist as a result of these bypasses.
"As with the posting of the signs, we will be willing to provide manpower to facilitate this additional monitoring. We feel that it is the responsibility of both your agencies to have the monitoring done because of the distinct likelihood that there is a human health threat when these bypasses occur. The excuse that a threat may not exist because of a lack of data is an inadequate response to the situation. People swim, canoe, fish in this river daily during this time of year regardless of signs and deserve to be informed when and how much of an elevated risk exists. . " "
That request was made just a few days after this exchange of e-mail between McThenia, Allen Gutshall the Health Department, and Dr. Larsen.
From: A. McThenia"Friday morning a bus load of students from Parry McCluer HS put canoes in below the Lexington sewage treatment plant and failed to see any warning signs, if they were ever posted. The leader of this group saw signs warning of raw sewage down river at the takeout point. He is very upset that his group was not warned and he is worried about the health implications and when it will be safe to go in the river again.
To: Allen Gutshall
Subject: Maury River Sewage.
"This gentleman called on Friday at 5:00 PM and I told him to call the local Health Department. I called the sewer plant to request that they post the put-in area better. They had one sign posted by the river but not at the put-in point [below the dam at Jordan's Point] on Wednesday.
"Currently the city and volunteers (myself) are posting the river for two days following a raw sewage release. I have never believed that this was enough time for
flushing and die-off.
"I am sick to death of excuses from the Health Dept. on this and I am going on record as saying that I told you all so. If you trust anyone in this (Lexington] Field Office of Water Programs to make (an] unbiased judgement call on public notification or special investigations of a problem that might create more work for them, then you are sadly mistaken.
"The entire history of this situation is public record and I plan to make as big an issue of it as I can."
From: Allen Gutshall"Would anyone care to comment to Mr. McThenia?
To: Ron Conner, Dr. Larsen
Subject: Maury River Sewage
"I also received a call this morning from a Mr. Calvin Cummins (sp?) asking when the signs would be coming down and when the STP would be back on line. I briefly described what had happened to the plant ... and referred Mr. Cummins to the Lexington Office of Water Programs for any timeliness because I do not know when the STP will be back on line. I also do not know when it will be safe to go in the river again. He seemed very nice, not upset at all and just wanted some information after seeing the signs posted. It appears that the signs were noticed by some folks near the river. ...
"Mr. McThenia deserves recognition in being one of the 'volunteers' to post signs and should also be more
cognizant in the posting since he is apparently aware of all put-in points along the river. ...
"I always thought the two days on the [warning] sign posting [after raw sewage is put into the river] was a
minimum.?? I would recc. that the signs be allowed to remain indefinitely and not just two days, to satisfy Mr. McThenia's concerns, or until DEQ can sample the river and make a determination of water quality since surface waters are under their jurisdiction and responsibility.
"It appears as if Mr. McThenia either need signs from the city or he/they posted some in the place and the canoers didn't see them. How many points are there along the river for canoes? Considers every point a canoe can be slid into the river may need several thousand signs???
"Ron, you may have to address Mr. McThenia’s questions related to OWP concerning 'trust', he being ill from 'excuses', 'biased judgement' and doing anything to 'create more work.'
"As for Mr. McThenia's 'plan to make as big an issue of it as I can,' it appears he is trying and doing a good job.
Two days before he sent the memo, McThenia had sampled the river himself, and paid to have the contents of the sample analyzed. The results came back June 1 and showed a fecal coliform level of greater than 16000 per million. The standard for swimming water is 1000 per million for a single sample, 200 parts per million for two samples taken within a month).
"You are a very concerned citizen," Larsen told McThenia the day after the sample came back from the lab "and I sense your dedication to protecting yourself, your property and your fellow citizens. Anyone who would take
off a day's work and collect samples and be willing to pay for a test result has my admiration. Plus all the other actions you have taken to warn folks about the river."
Whether or not the tests of McThenia's sample accurately reflect the condition of the river, Larsen says, that doesn't mean you should jump right in after a bypass at the sewage treatment, plant. Further sampling, he says, shows fecal coliform levels that are double the standard for safe swimming.
On June 5, McThenia wrote another memo to Larsen.
"I have been warned not to dedicate Office of Water Programs resources to this issue which relates to sewage so this will be my last e-mail to you on the state computer. I guess if I were an engineer in this office I would be authorized to discuss sewage issues on state time.
"I have tried to approach this issue from my official position and been told it is not my responsibility. My primary concern over swimmer safety is partially selfish because I too am a swimmer and would like to feel safe swimming in the river. Because no one of OEHS or DEQ or OWP would take any responsibility for public concerns over the sewage I feel obligated to do something about it. Is this wrong? Is this conflict of interest? A government watchdog does not have to be outside of government nor does a whistle blower. I would much rather have not had to resort to public hearings, newspapers, etc., but my concerns about the problems have been repeatedly ignored by everyone including yourself.
"I paid for a water sample to be run by a private lab from the Maury River during the bypass of Wed. [May] 27. I tried to get some authorization for samples to be run, but everyone in VDH and DEQ said that only the medical director [Dr. Larsen] could authorize river samples being run through [the state lab in] Luray. What makes these samples so controversial? Are they afraid that if they step outside of their normal operating program that they would get in trouble? Would anyone be afraid that an agency responsible for public health might punish them [for] conducting an investigation into a potential health problem? Would they be chastised for raising such an issue? Are they afraid of opening a can of worms and making more work for themselves? Are they afraid of the public outcry that could result from their discoveries? Are they afraid they will be accused of ignoring the problem too long? Are they afraid of offending the polluters? I think the answer to ail of these questions in the same."
"I sense a great deal of frustration," Larsen replied." Look forward to hearing from you soon. Keep smiling.'
Within a month, McThenia had resigned his position with the health department's office of water programs here and taken a job in another part of the state.
But he still owns property along the Maury, and is working with the Rockbridge Area Conservation Council and the Natural Bridge Soil and Water Conservation District to secure some grants to help study and find solutions to the problems that put the five Rockbridge area streams on the state's impaired waters list.