Tag Archives: James River

Drinkable Water for Humans — or Fish?

James River carp do just fine in water that don't meet drinking water standards.

James River carp do just fine in water that doesn’t meet human drinking water standards.

by James A. Bacon

State regulators have taken heat recently for permits they issued Dominion Virginia Power to release treated wastewater from coal-ash ponds into the James River and Quantico Creek. The controversy has played out in the news as the Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC) filed an appeal to contest the permit and as protesters organized by No ACP rallied at Capitol Square to protest the “dumping” of “toxic” water into Virginia rivers.

SELC and No ACP are very different organizations, and they are demanding very different things. The main concern of the SELC, a mainstream environmental organization, is to ensure that treated wastewater released into Virginia waters meets the “fishable/swimmable” standard that protects aquatic life. The protesters, organized by local activist groups No ACP, Collective X and Richmond Resistance, want to hold Dominion and other utilities to a far stricter — and, arguably, entirely inappropriate — “drinkable” standard.

It’s easy for the public to conflate the two as part of a general critique of big utilities and  compliant regulators allowing the dumping of toxic pollution into Virginia waters. But that would be a huge mistake. Agree or disagree with their legal case, the SELC attorneys understand the issues at stake. By contrast, the activists’ mastery of the subject matter does not appear to exceed what they can write on placards and chant in slogans.

I will deal with the activists’ argument in this post so I can delve more deeply into the SELC case against the wastewater permits later.

According to the No ACP press release, the protesters’ demands are simple — “an immediate repeal of recent permits that would allow Dominion Power to dump millions of gallons of toxic coal ash wastewater into Virginia’s most treasured waterways.”

What standards should Dominion meet? “DEQ must rewrite these permits to require the use of best available technology and that the water be treated to undetectable levels of arsenic and other toxins before disposal,” states the press release. Speaking to the Times-Dispatch, protest organizer Tatiane McCormick made much the same point: The permits should be rewritten to require Dominion to discharge water into the rivers only if it meets (to use the T-D‘s words) “drinking water standards.” (No ACP did not respond to a Bacon’s Rebellion request for an interview.)

A  refresher: Coal ash is the residue from the combustion of coal. Dominion, Appalachian Power Co. and large industrial companies have been impounding the material, which contains heavy metals such as arsenic, mercury, and cadmium, in large containment ponds for many years. Because the metals are typically chemically bound with clays and glasses, not free-floating, they are largely inert, which is why the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) does not classify coal ash as a hazardous waste.

Dominion, the first company in Virginia to respond to the new standards, plans to drain the water from the ponds and then cap them in order to prevent rainwater from percolating through. Dominion will treat the water in a multi-staged clean-up process before releasing it into the river. The DEQ permit allows the water to exceed safe levels at the point of entry into the river, relying upon dilution with river water to keep it within prescribed limits.

The state has two types of regulatory standards: one for drinking water, and one for fishable/swimmable water. Power plants and manufacturers are required to meet the fishable/swimmable standard for any effluent they release into rivers and streams. Under the U.S. regulatory regime, it is up to municipal water treatment plants, not power plants and manufacturers, to bring river water up to the drinking water standard, and they have invested billions of dollars in treatment facilities to do so.

Under its permit, Dominion will release a maximum of 1,500 gallons per minute of treated wastewater into the river, says Jason Williams, an environmental manager for the utility. River flow varies depending upon weather conditions, but on the day Williams spoke to Bacon’s Rebellion, it was running about 13.7 million gallons per minute. “If you treated the [coal ash] wastewater to drinking water quality,” says Williams, “it would immediately be rendered undrinkable by mixing with the river water.”

John R. Craynon, who manages the Appalachian Research Initiative for Environmental Science (ARIES) at Virginia Tech, makes the same point. (ARIES is funded by the coal industry but the industry has no say in the selection of research projects, says Craynon.) Treating wastewater to a drinking water standard would be very expensive and a waste of effort, he says. “The moment the drinking water hits the stream, it’s no longer of the same quality.”

Bottom line: Compelling Dominion and other utilities to treat coal ash wastewater to drinking water standards would accomplish nothing. It would not render the river water safe for human consumption. The real question is whether Dominion’s permit will enable it to meet the swimmable/fishable standards that protect aquatic life. The SELC would like the permit to tighten the restrictions on mercury and arsenic. We will examine that issue in a subsequent post.

Stakes Alive!

Yes, the live stakes are still alive.

Yes, the live stakes are still alive. (Click for larger image.)

Back in March volunteers with the Countryside Homeowners Association in Henrico County planted some 500 live stakes along severely eroded sections of Westham Creek. We were rubes. We didn’t know what we were doing. Our hope was to establish thickets of Red Osier Dogwood and Black Willow along the waterline that would produce a dense mat of roots to hold the soil in place during major downpours. But for all we knew, we’d end up with 500 dead sticks in the ground.

I went back down to the creek a few days ago to check on progress. The good news is that most (not all) of the two-foot stakes are still alive. They’ve actually sprouted greenery. We didn’t kill them all (only some of them)! Hooray!

The stakes don’t look like they would hold up yet to a good gully washer, but give them time. I’ll check back in two or three months to see how they’re doing.


Botanical Barges


Photo credit: Lewis Ginter Botanical Park

The Chesapeake Bay Foundation has a new idea for saving the bay: Install floating, fertilizer-sipping wetlands in Virginia’s small lakes and storm water ponds.

by James A. Bacon

The Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden is well known in the Richmond region for its Fountain Garden, its Rose Garden, its East Asia Garden and its Wetlands Garden. Its newest addition could well be referred to as its Floating Garden.

Working in conjunction with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation (CFB) last week, 20 volunteers loaded a large, plastic-mesh raft with perennial plants, lugged it down to Lewis Ginter’s Lake Sydnor, maneuvered it into open water and anchored it into place with cinderblocks.

A small crowd gathered to observe the proceedings. “When we launched the island,” says Ann Jurczyk, outreach and advocacy manager for the CFB, “people standing on the bridges started applauding when they saw it wasn’t going to sink!”

The floating garden, which measures a mere 120-square-feet, may qualify as the smallest attraction in Lewis Ginter’s 50-acre park of exquisitely tended trees, shrubs and flowers. But the plant-laden ark fulfills a critical function: removing fertilizer from the lake.

“The island functions like marsh plants,” explains Grace Chapman, Lewis Ginter’s director of horticulture. Roots grow through the mesh and dangle a foot or so into the water, where they absorb run-off nitrogen and phosphorous that feed the algae blooms and create oxygen dead zones. But treating the scourge of Virginia’s waterways is not the only thing the island does, she says. “It makes a great turtle barge.” At last count, the island had eight turtles.

Lewis Ginter’s floating wetland is one of two launched May 15 as part of a larger initiative to clean up Upham Brook. Restoration of the badly impared urban stream, which feeds into the Chickahominy River, is a top priority for the CFB. The same day saw the launch of a second floating wetland at the nearby Belmont Golf Course. A grant from a statewide restoration fund, financed by the purchase of Chesapeake Bay license plates, paid for the installations.

The idea for floating wetlands originated about a decade ago out West and has drifted east. Floating Island Southeast, based in Chapel Hill, N.C., is the exclusive provider of “BioHaven Islands” in Virginia and the Carolinas. The purchase price runs under $4,000 per island, including plants and shipping, says Jurczyk.

The Environmental Protection Agency has not yet vouched for the efficacy of the floating islands but a number of small-scale studies, including one conducted by Virginia Tech, has shown positive results. Floating Island Southeast claims that one square foot of its buoyant botanicals will suck up 10 grams of nitrate, 15 grams of ammonia and 0.5 grams of phosphate per day.

Lewis Ginter’s floating wetland is doubly important to CFB, says Jurczyk, because many people will see it, learn about it and hopefully grasp the potential to install one in their own neighborhood. Especially well suited for storm water retention ponds, the floating islands are readily installed and easily maintained. “The nitrogen and phosphorous [removed] is pretty remarkable on a cost-per-pound basis,” she says.

The CFB is looking for a home for two more islands, which it is willing to install at no cost. The main commitment it seeks from a partner like a golf course or homeowners association is to pull in the island once a year and weed out invasive species. Says Jurczyk: “This is a pretty good investment to keep pond health where it should be.”

This article was made possible by a Bon Secours of Virginia Health System sponsorship.

Repairing Waterways One Subdivision at a Time

Driving live stakes into the eroding bank of Westham Creek.

Virginia’s suburbs are hard on water quality and wildlife habitat. You can do something about it. Create a neighborhood preserve and get to work!

by James A. Bacon

If everyone swept their front stoop, the old saying goes, the whole world would be clean. With that philosophy in mind, two or three dozen volunteers with the Countryside Homeowners Association mobilized Saturday to clean up the creek running through their neighborhood. In a morning’s work, they collected several bags of trash, planted roughly 500 dogwood and willow stakes along the eroded stream bed, and built “rabbitats” to make homes for small woodland creatures.

Countryside homeowners had long ignored the stretch of Westham Creek running through the neighborhood. Once in a while, someone would call the public works department when culverts got clogged and the creek backed up, and occasionally kids would play in the woods, but that was about the extent of it. Over the 11 years I’ve lived in the subdivision, I paid little heed to the creek, which does not touch my property. But my environmental consciousness is more expansive these days than in years past, and my thoughts have turned increasingly to the forlorn and neglected strip of woods running through my neighborhood.

Indeed, you could say that I have become a zealot on the subject. I heartily urge other Virginia homeowners to undertake the clean-up of the creeks and streams in their own back yards, and I offer this article as a modest example of what citizens can accomplish on their own. There is no need to wait for the James River Association or the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay to come organize you. In the immortal words of the Nike commercials, just do it!

My enthusiasm was kindled a few months ago when Barbara Brown, president of our homeowners association, shared a consultant’s report that she had commissioned at her own expense regarding the potential for creating a neighborhood wildlife sanctuary. The report concluded that the Westham Creek floodplain was of sufficient size and quality to serve as a viable conservation area, providing “green space for residents to enjoy, quality wildlife habitat, water quality protection benefits and … an educational starting point for many community activities.” The potential existed, the consultant said, to create a communal asset that would “interest prospective home buyer as properties changed hands over the years.” In other words turning the floodplain into a neighborhood asset could increase property values.

Legal title to the land in the flood plain had been held by the Countryside Corporation, which had developed the subdivision. Taking ownership itself, the homeowners association created a conservation area that benefited everyone and made it easier to get the neighborhood excited about its upkeep and maintenance.

Around the time that I became aware of Barbara’s initiative, I had been writing about stream and creek restoration efforts in the James River watershed as part of a wider effort to clean the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries. Much of the Bay pollution comes from everyday activities of suburbanites like my neighbors and me. We fertilize our lawns with little thought to the nitrogen and phosphates that wash into our creeks, flow downstream and ultimately create algae blooms and dead zones in the Bay. We neglect the neighborhood creek, only dimly aware that erosion washes tons of sediment into the river, clouding the water, blocking sunlight and killing underwater grasses so vital to Bay and riverine ecosystems. We are a part of the problem. But with a little effort we can be part of the solution.

Barbara was organizing the neighborhood’s first spring clean-up event, so I volunteered to see what could be done to fix our stream. I took John Newton, Henrico County’s stream-reclamation engineer, on a tour of Westham Creek, showing him where the stream had cut stream banks as high as six feet and had washed away the soil from under towering trees, leaving tangles of exposed roots. Newton said the erosion was pretty bad but had not reached a level where it justified county intervention. He recommended that we stabilize the creek banks by planting live stakes every few inches, three rows high, in a diamond-shaped pattern. Within a couple of years, the stakes would grow into dense foliage with thick mat of roots that should hold the soil into place.

The next step was figuring out where to find the live stakes. The stakes are a specialty product, cut in uniform lengths of about two feet, stripped clean and chopped diagonally at one end for easier insertion into the sand and clay. The James River Association put us in touch with Ernst Conservation Seeds, of Meadville, Pa., which specializes in bioengineering and wetlands materials. For about $500, which the homeowners association paid for, Ernst shipped us roughly 500 stakes of Red Osier Dogwood and Black Willow.

Now, I know next to nothing about planting live stakes. But I had read a couple of pamphlets and talked to a couple of experts when writing my articles. And in the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king. So, while Barbara supervised the trash clean-up and rabitat construction, I organized the stake-driving team.

It was a nippy March morning. A dozen men and a couple of teenage boys spent a couple of hours splashing through the (mostly) shallow creek and pounding stakes into the riverbank. We had enough material to stabilize about 40 to 50 linear yards. The key was to drive in the stakes at a such an angle and depth for their roots to tap the water. Having absolutely no idea of what we were doing, we will have to wait and see how many live and how many die. Hopefully, we will learn enough from our floundering exertions that we can repeat the process more successfully next year on another stretch of creek bank. The creek has enough erosion to give us spring projects for years to come. Read More.

Creek by Creek, Fish by Fish, the Bay Is Slowly Recovering

Graphic credit: Chesapeake Bay Foundation

Despite a growing population in its watershed, the Chesapeake Bay continued its long, slow recovery in 2012, reports the Chesapeake Bay Foundation (CFB). It may be another four decades before we can say that we “saved” the Bay, but we’re moving in the right direction.

Five of 12 key indicators improved last year while only one declined. “We can be proud of the progress we have made. It demonstrates what can happen when government, businesses, and individuals work cooperatively,” wrote William C. Baker in the president’s message to the CFB’s 2012 State of the Bay report. “But we cannot rest. … There is a great deal left to do.”

Pollution. Among pollution indicators, phosphorous loads declined and dissolved oxygen levels rose. Perhaps most encouraging was the fact that the average size of the Chesapeake’s dead zone (lacking sufficient oxygen to sustain life) was the second smallest since 1985. There was no change in nitrogen, water clarity or toxics from the previous year.

Habitat. Overall habitat scores declined slightly, with the deterioration of underwater grasses outweighing gains in resource lands. The acreage of underwater grasses, which create crucial habitat for many underwater species, had plunged 20% in 2011 and showed little improvement in 2012. The positive news is that major grass beds survived heavy rain events that bring deadly sediment runoff. On the positive side, Pennsylvania and Virginia have been converting significant acreage from farms to forests — 37,000 acres in Pennsylvania, 23,000 acres in Virginia — more than offsetting the loss of 8,000 acres in Maryland. Virginia also added 58,800 acres of protected resource lands, double the level of Pennsylvania and Maryland combined.

Fisheries. Blue crabs continued their comeback in 2012, reaching the highest winter survey since the mid-1990s. Oysters also appeared to turn a corner, thanks to a concerted restoration effort, although it may take several more years of scientific assessment to say that oysters are out of the woods (to use an entirely inappropriate metaphor). Indicators for shad and rockfish remained steady.

Looking ahead, the CFB report highlighted efforts to save menhaden, a foundational fish species upon which other fish and wildlife prey. Among other actions, Virginia is considering imposing a catch limit on the species. (See Don Rippert’s political analysis here.) Cattle-farming best practices, such as rotational grazing and fencing cattle out of local streams, are being implemented. And local governments are investing more in storm water management.

While state governments, local governments and businesses will need to invest billions of dollars more in the years to come, the CFB dangled the encouraging prospect that innovative technologies and creative approaches might reduce the price tag. States the report: “The projected costs are already dropping in many jurisdictions. For example, a year ago, Frederick County, Maryland, estimated reducing polluted runoff might cost $4.3 billion. That number dropped to $1.5 billion when the state provided information about approved techniques. We believe these costs will continue to decrease.”

Bacon’s bottom line: It hasn’t been easy summoning the political will to spend tens of billions of dollars on the Bay. But the financial sacrifice becomes easier to bear when we see the results. For many years the best that could be said, it seemed, was that the Bay was deteriorating more slowly. Now it’s actually healing. That knowledge bolsters our commitment to forge ahead.

New Life for Broken Streams

John Newton, Henrico environmental engineer, at the reclaimed Rocky Branch creek.

Rather than make developers install stormwater-control projects of marginal value, Henrico County pools resources to fund high-impact stream reclamations.

by James A. Bacon

Near the Henrico County government training center, a five-foot pipe spills water into Rocky Branch, a forlorn and forgotten urban creek. When it rains, water from more than 80 acres of roofs and parking lots along Broad Street rushes through the culvert and shoots into the stream at high velocity. Over the years water had scoured the stream bank, creating a gully that cut as deep as 10 feet. Stormwater washed tons of sediment every year into the James River watershed, carrying phosphorous, nitrogen and other pollutants with it.

Rocky Branch storm pipe

Thanks to a $600,000 stream restoration project, the ugly little gully has been stabilized. It hasn’t regained a pristine state of nature — some of its banks are hardened with large stones, logs and skeins of artificially implanted tree roots — but it isn’t eroding anymore. Thick with indigenous grass, shrubs and saplings, the banks are returning to woodland. Within a few years, the hand of man will be nearly invisible to passersby on the jogging trail just a few yards away.

Chalk up one small victory in the arduous campaign to clean up the James River and the Chesapeake Bay.

Rocky Branch is one of 48 stream segments that Henrico County identified more than 10 years ago as severely degraded and in need of restoration. To date, the county has repaired two others, one running through the Jamestown Townhouses apartment complex and the other behind Skipwith Elementary School.

Rocky Branch before restoration

None of the severely eroded creek beds would have been patched at all had Henrico County not adopted an innovative approach to storm water management. With the imposition of clean-water regulations under the Chesapeake Bay Preservation Act, Henrico required commercial and residential real estate developers to adopt Best Management Practices (BMPs) for controlling storm water run-off. What county officials found, however, was that some BMPs were cost-effective while others were not, explains Jeff W. Perry, engineering & environmental services division manager.

While two-thirds of the BMP projects were effective, removing 85% of the pollutant load, one third, usually associated with smaller subdivisions, accomplished little, eliminating only 11%. Developers would spend $30,000 to $40,000 for a project that might remove a half pound of phosphorous a year yet  the water would run into a severely eroded creek or stream where literally tons of sediment, along with phosphorous and other regulated nutrients, washed into the watershed. Says Perry of the mis-allocation of resources: “It’s a real head scratcher.”

Rocky Branch after restoration

The county’s policy innovation was to take the money that developers would have spent on marginally useful BMPs and put it into a special environmental fund. That fund then would pay for the clean-up of streams like Rocky Branch where the environmental benefit would far outweigh that of neighborhood BMPs. “You’ve got X amount of resources,” Perry says. “Why not get the biggest bang for the buck?”

Joe Lerch, director of environmental quality for the Virginia Municipal League, embraces Perry’s logic. By combining the contributions of multiple developers, he says, the county can accomplish far more than individual property owners could on their own. The program has won national recognition. Here in Virginia, Fairfax County has put a similar system into place.

In 1999-2000, Henrico County had hired consultants to walk some 200 miles of creeks and streams across the 234-square mile locality. They documented stream conditions and identified segments that called for restoration. County officials then prioritized those stream segments for remediation, taking into account accessibility, elevation, the number of property owners whose cooperation was necessary and the number of gas and water lines that intersected the stream. Read more.

Taming the Asphalt Jungle

Rain gardens and pervious pavers are encroaching on hard surfaces as Richmond’s three-year-old stormwater utility rolls out programs to control flooding and reduce runoff into the James River.

by James A. Bacon

It’s not often that Chimborazo Elementary School in Richmond’s inner city generates positive attention but June 1 was a special day. Mayor Dwight Jones, Congressman Bobby Scott and assorted state and local dignitaries gathered to celebrate the inauguration of a storm water garden on what had been a gray asphalt school yard.

Dressed in bright white shirts and dark pants, four school children filed up to the podium to read to the assembled audience. “Have you ever seen it rain so hard that rain came running down off the roof, rushing down the sidewalk or covering the street? The water is known as storm water,” read one student.”The water picks up trash, dog droppings and fertilizer, carrying it into the creeks and rivers,” continued another. “Richmond City built this beautiful rain garden at Chimborazo Elementary School… The soil and plants will soak up some of the water that would run down into the storm drain…”

As a practical matter, the Chimborazo rain garden has little more than symbolic value. A few square yards of vegetative buffer on a school yard will do little in a city of 60 square miles to curb the problem of urban storm water runoff, stream erosion and pollution in the James River. But it’s a start. And it’s a visible example of taxpayer dollars at work. The project was funded, with state assistance, by the Richmond Stormwater Utility.

Richmond’s infrastructure, more than a century old in parts of the city, has serious storm water issues. In major downpours, storm water mixes with sewage, overwhelms the sewage treatment plant and flows into the James River. In other sections of the city, storm water rampages through creeks and streams, erodes banks and washes sediment into the river. Localized flooding is also a problem in many neighborhoods.

The stormwater utility, created in 2009, raises about $9 million a year by taxing property owners based on the area of impervious surface on their land.The city charges homeowners a fee ranging from $25 to $75 per year, depending upon the size of their lots, and non-residential property owners $45 per Equivalent Residential Unit.

Michelle Virts

“With a dedicated funding source, we can take a more proactive approach,” says Michelle Virts, deputy director of utilities in charge of stormwater, floodwater and wastewater (anything that relies upon gravity pipes, as she puts it). “We’re addressing the backlog of drainage complaints plus some capital improvements.”

People understand the necessity of paying water and sewer bills — they get tangible value in the form of functioning spigots and toilets. The stormwater fee is a harder sell. Indeed, the city is owed $6.8 million in uncollected stormwater fees because so many people have been unable or unwilling to pay. After taking a soft approach to collections of the new and unfamiliar fee, city officials have begun discussing whether to crank up collections efforts. The city is feeling heat from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to improve its stormwater control programs, and the money is needed.

The problems with stormwater are real, even if they are invisible to Richmond residents. Stormwater runoff washes fertilizer, pesticides, sediment and other pollution into James River and, ultimately, the Chesapeake Bay.

“Of all the sources of pollution plaguing the Bay and its tributaries, the only one that’s not improving is stormwater runoff,” says Chuck Epes, assistant director of media relations with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. With assistance from the EPA and the state, Virginia cities are upgrading their sewage treatment plants. Farmers are installing conservation practices to control pesticides, fertilizers and manure. But as Virginia’s population swells, houses, driveways, parking lots roads and other impermeable surface is replacing farms, forest and wetlands.

This “non-point source pollution” is so ubiquitous that it’s the hardest to tackle, says Epes. “It’s your back yard, my front yard. … It costs a lot of money to retrofit. … But if we don’t get a handle on stormwater runoff, it will overwhelm the improvements we’ve made on other fronts.” Read more.