Harmful algal blooms that threaten the health of people and pets who spend time on the water led Virginia to add Lake Anna and six other bodies of water to its list of impaired waterways in a recent draft report.
The Virginia Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) finished the public comment period on its draft Water Quality Assessment Integrated Report last Friday. Sometimes called Virginia's “dirty waters list,” the report is released every two years and identifies waterways that do not meet state standards.
“Toxic algal blooms are one of the most troubling signs that Virginia’s waterways are suffering from too much nitrogen and phosphorus pollution,” said CBF Virginia Executive Director Peggy Sanner. “The solution to cleaning up our waterways is clear—Virginia must continue to invest in programs that reduce pollution from cities, suburbs, farms, and sewage treatment plants.”
Lake Anna is a major hub for swimmers, boaters, and anglers. In late summer the Virginia Department of Health often posts health advisories for portions of the lake due to dangers from harmful algal blooms. Other waterways newly listed for algal blooms this year include Mint Springs Lake, Aquia Creek, Wilcox Lake, Woodstock Pond, Prince Edward Lake, and a tributary of the Chickahominy River.
Algal blooms occur when nitrogen and phosphorus pollution, combined with warm water temperatures, fuel explosive growth of algae. Some species of algae can produce toxins, threatening the health of people, pets, fish, and shellfish. When the algae die and break down, they create oxygen-depleted dead zones in the water where aquatic life cannot survive.
“Virginia’s elected leaders invested historic levels of funding in programs that reduce pollution to Virginia’s rivers, lakes, and streams,” Sanner said. “This funding should make a significant difference. DEQ’s work monitoring and identifying impaired waters, along with the efforts of local groups such as the Lake Anna Civic Association, is also crucial to focusing these restoration efforts where they are most needed.”
While harmful algal blooms have long plagued many Virginia waterways, this year’s report takes a new approach that categorizes a waterway as impaired for algal blooms based on recurring Virginia Department of Health warnings.
In addition to algal blooms, DEQ declares waterways impaired for low dissolved oxygen, high bacteria levels, toxics found in fish, and other issues. More than 75 percent of Virginia’s estuaries and tidal rivers and 86 percent of Virginia’s lakes are declared impaired in the latest draft report. Farther upstream, 16,184 miles of rivers and streams are recognized as impaired.
The report aims to spur action to improve the health of these imperiled waters. Once a waterway is listed as impaired, the state sets pollution-reduction targets that can restore the waterway. Additional funding becomes available to projects that cut pollution flowing specifically into these waterways.
The goal is to take waterways off the list. In a bright spot this year, the Jackson River in western Virginia was de-listed thanks to the reduction of pollution discharges from municipal and industrial facilities in its watershed.
Improvements in many other waterways can be linked to restoration work going on throughout the Commonwealth. Important examples include upgrades to many wastewater treatment plants, farm conservation practices supported by state and federal cost-share programs, and efforts by state and local governments to reduce polluted runoff from cities and suburbs.
DEQ released its latest draft integrated report this July, and it references data from January 2015 to December 2020. Public comment closed on Aug. 5, and the State Water Control Board is expected to consider the report this fall. An executive summary of the report is available here.