Portions of the Bay, Rappahannock, and James Rivers Improved in Latest Impaired Waters List

(RICHMOND, VA)—Portions of the Chesapeake Bay, James River, and Rappahannock River are showing promising signs of recovery due to restoration efforts, meeting state standards for dissolved oxygen for the first time since the benchmarks were adopted in 2005. The Chesapeake Bay Foundation (CBF) identified this progress in a review of the Department of Environmental Quality's (DEQ) recent draft Water Quality Assessment Integrated Report. The report, sometimes called Virginia's "dirty waters list," also shows a hopeful increase in the number of non-tidal streams and reservoirs in Virginia that meet state water quality standards.

"The improving health of these waterways is yet another sign that state and federal efforts are starting to pay off. More dissolved oxygen in these waterways leads to healthier populations of fish, oysters, and crabs, bringing economic benefits to the Commonwealth," said CBF Virginia Director Rebecca LePrell. "But these are just initial signs of recovery in a fragile system. More than two-thirds of Virginia waterways being monitored are still impaired. Progress will only continue with sustained investment by Virginia combined with full support of the Chesapeake Bay Program."

There is a lot left to be done. More than two-thirds of Virginia streams that are monitored are impaired, and DEQ has only been able to monitor one-fourth of the streams in the Commonwealth. Additionally, 87 percent of tidal waters assessed by DEQ are also impaired.

The improvements can be linked to restoration work going on throughout the Commonwealth. That includes upgrades to many wastewater treatment plants, farm conservation practices often supported by state and federal cost-share programs, and efforts by state and local governments to reduce polluted runoff from cities and suburbs. Under the Chesapeake Clean Water Blueprint, the Chesapeake Bay Program at EPA has been critical to the success of state and local efforts to restore the Bay and its rivers and streams. However, in the next week or two the House will vote on a budget that cuts the Bay Program by almost 20 percent, threatening future progress.

DEQ's integrated report, released every two years, analyzes water quality in monitored waterways across Virginia for a range of standards. Since Virginia adopted these benchmarks in 2005, tidal parts of the James River and the Rappahannock River have shown evidence of chronically low dissolved oxygen. The draft report, released this August, for the first time shows no evidence of chronically low dissolved oxygen within these rivers. A segment of the mainstem Chesapeake Bay between the Rappahannock and the Potomac has also showed improvements in dissolved oxygen in deep waters. However, low dissolved oxygen still occurs for shorter periods. These waterways are also still impaired for other factors, including low water clarity and harmful algal blooms. The latest draft integrated report references data from January 2009 to December 2014. Public comment is open through September 6. 

Dissolved oxygen is just one measure of a waterway's healthiness. Higher levels of dissolved oxygen support a greater variety and abundance of aquatic life, including fish, crabs, and oysters. Extremely low levels of dissolved oxygen can lead to dead zones within a waterway where life can't survive. Pollution often lowers dissolved oxygen levels by feeding oxygen-sucking algal blooms. Much more work is needed to stem the flow of pollution to Virginia's waters and take more waterways off the dirty waters list. Continued investment in monitoring and restoration is critical.

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Editor's note: An executive summary of DEQ's draft integrated report is available here.

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