Pilot Project Links Rainstorms to High Bacteria Levels in Richmond-Area Waterways

71 Percent of Post-Rain Samples Above State Bacteria Standards

(RICHMOND, VA)—Rainstorms can lead to higher bacteria levels in some of the Richmond-area waterways sampled in a new Chesapeake Bay Foundation (CBF) pilot project. CBF examined the link between precipitation and bacteria levels in streams, creeks, and the James River at four sites this summer. The project found E. coli levels above Virginia standards for swimming and recreation in 71 percent of samples taken after rainfalls.

Rains can increase bacteria levels by washing fecal waste into streams from city streets, suburbs, farms, and sewer systems. While other programs monitor water quality in Central Virginia, most do not focus on sampling after storms when bacteria levels tend to be at their highest.

"Our monitoring project is unique because it gives us a better picture of what is going on after rainfalls in the Richmond area," said CBF Virginia Executive Director Rebecca LePrell. "Unfortunately, the results are not surprising. We haven't given our rainwater enough opportunity to soak into the ground, so we see more signs of pollution after storms."

Samples from three sites frequently had E. coli levels well above Virginia's standard for swimming and recreational contact (235 colony forming units per 100 milliliters). All four sites are publicly accessible and represent a variety of waterways found in Central Virginia. Virginia considers all of these waterways impaired for recreational use due to high E. coli levels.

  • Richmond: Jordan's Branch at Bryan Park This stream in a popular park had one post-rain bacteria reading come in more than 20 times Virginia's standard.
  • Richmond: Mouth of Gillies Creek Near a popular fishing spot where this urban creek meets the James River, this site by far had the highest bacteria levels. One sample was more than 100 times Virginia's standard. The creek is plagued by runoff from numerous combined sewer overflows, which during heavy rains release sewage and polluted runoff.
  • Hanover County: Beaverdam Creek at Cold Harbor Road At this quiet leafy battlefield park just downstream from Mechanicsville, one post-rainfall bacteria sample reached more than 50 times Virginia's standard. Officials note that there was a sewer line failure upstream at the time of the sample.
  • Chesterfield County: James River at Robious Landing Samples from this paddling and recreation spot on a quiet stretch of the James generally had low bacteria levels that fell below Virginia's limit.

This project isn't meant to tell people when and where it is safe to get in the water. Instead, it spotlights how runoff from heavy rains can damage our waterways. Many organizations don't sample specifically after rain because timing and logistics are challenging. Storms are unpredictable. For CBF's program, a group of dedicated volunteers collected water samples the day after rainstorms of one-half inch or more. Testing was completed by a certified commercial lab.

Solutions to Polluted Runoff

"We need to do more, and we need a solution-based approach that involves citizens and local governments equally doing their part," said LePrell.

Fortunately, we know how to stop rainfall from washing polluted runoff and waste into streams. Residents can install rain barrels, landscape with native trees, and pick up all pet waste. Cities and counties can install permeable pavers, rain gardens, and invest in a variety of projects.

Virginia's Stormwater Local Assistance Fund provides matching grants to cities and counties for effective and efficient projects that stop the flow of pollution into our waterways, such as building wetlands. Following Virginia's Clean Water Blueprint, the plan to clean up local rivers, streams, and the Chesapeake Bay, is key to restoring our waters.

Other groups undertaking bacteria monitoring in and around Richmond include the James River Association and the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay. CBF plans to share results with the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality, contributing to the Commonwealth's efforts to track the health of our waters.

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