The News Desk is a collection of news, notes and breaking items affecting the Fredericksburg community.
Seeking clarity on river woes
There’s been good progress, but more work is needed to get to the bottom of a chronic bacteria contamination in the waters along Fairview Beach.
And a watershed-based plan might be the next step.
That was the gist of a recent meeting at the Fairview Beach Fire Department among residents, local and state officials and others who have been working for nearly a decade to find out why bacteria levels spike at the Potomac River beach during the summer months.
Representatives of the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality, Health Department, King George County Service Authority, and the Interstate Commission on the Potomac River Basin were on hand, in a follow-up meeting to one held at the firehouse last fall.
The session focused on a report by the interstate commission’s Ross Mandel, summarizing water-monitoring data and possible sources for the contamination compiled since 2004.
“There’s a lot of great data that’s been collected at Fairview Beach by a lot of people,” Mandel said. He noted that the preliminary report commissioned by DEQ doesn’t include this summer’s monitoring results, which suggest a turnaround.
Only one swim advisory was posted in the Memorial Day to Labor Day swimming season. In previous years, Fairview Beach was consistently at the top of the list of the number of advisories posted at Virginia’s 46 monitored beaches.
To date, research and monitoring has shown some correlation between heavy rainfall on the hillside community and high concentrations of indicator bacteria in water samples. Also, levels tend to be higher when storms stir up river sediment near the shore.
Because of the contamination, Fairview Beach is listed by the state as impaired for recreational use.
Residents have suggested that some of the contamination may be related to sewage treatment plant discharges elsewhere along the river. Mandel said water tests offshore in the Potomac showed no corresponding spikes.
And water sampled off Caledon State Park, about a mile down river, showed no spikes.
Indicators of human waste in water samples is another concern. Source analyses by Virginia Tech researchers found that bird, human, pet and wildlife waste all contribute to the contamination.
“It’s disturbing that a quarter of that is coming from human sources,” Mandel said.
Years of work have been invested in the search for a cause of the contamination.
Sewer lines and an aging trailer park’s septic sites have been inspected and repaired. Officials have dye-tested pipes and stormwater drains.
The Health Department, Department of Environmental Quality, Virginia Tech and the residents’ association have all been involved in aspects of the elusive search for a “smoking gun.”
Water is tested by the Health Department weekly during the swimming season. Advisories are posted when levels of enterococci bacteria exceed state limits. Enterococci are harmless themselves but indicate the presence of potentially harmful microbes in animal or human wastes.
Those waterborne pathogens can cause gastrointestinal illness and eye and ear infections, but so far there’s been no documented case of illness related to the Fairview Beach contamination.
The residents’ association does its own water sampling, using a simpler, E. coli-based indicator for testing.
DEQ had been considering two options to move the Fairview Beach investigation forward: a TMDL, and a watershed-based plan.
A TMDL, or total maximum daily load, is a key component of the state’s larger plan for cleaning up the Chesapeake Bay. It limits the amount of certain pollutants going into water.
A watershed-based plan—to document improvements already made and address the impairment while specifying other work necessary to meet water-quality standards—was deemed to be the best option. That would be simpler than a TMDL and would also qualify for grant funds.
Jennifer Carlson, water resources planner for DEQ’s Northern Regional Office, said much of the work has already been done, and that a watershed plan could be ready for review by next summer.
Mike Bennett, a member of the Fairview Beach Residents Association board of directors, said, “We need help to get this done. We’re a very small community . . . with very limited resources.”
He added, “This contamination problem is very important . . .not only to our families, but our guests who come to visit. It’s been such a difficult problem to nail down and resolve.”
He said this summer’s monitoring results are a hopeful sign.
“You wonder if some of the problems have been resolved.”
King George Supervisor John LoBuglio, whose district includes Fairview Beach, said the meeting was encouraging.
“I can see some real progress being made. Now it seems like everyone’s on the same page.”
Rusty Dennen: 540/374-5431