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Bacteria plagues Fairview Beach

File / Suzanne Carr / The Free Lance-Star

File / Suzanne Carr / The Free Lance-Star

As state agencies and homeowners work to discover what’s contaminating the water at Fairview Beach, advisories have been posted repeatedly at the Potomac River site for swimmers to stay out of the water.

The Virginia Department of Health already has put up more advisories at the King George County beach this summer than for all of 2013. Three advisories—noting when bacteria levels exceed state limits—have been posted for a total of 14 days, according to the Health Department’s website. The advisories were for May 19–21, June 9–19 and June 25–27.

A sample taken on Monday July 14 was within state standards.

Jim Howard, a King George County supervisor who represents the Fairview Beach area, said a lot of rain, wind and storms accounted for the repeat advisories.

He serves on a steering committee that has worked since February on the Fairview Beach Watershed Plan, designed to restore water quality at the beach.

“This group has come to the realization that it’s in the sediment right off shore,” he told fellow supervisors Tuesday night. “If you go offshore 20 or 30 yards, nothing. The closer you get to the shore, the more waves and wind action disturbing the water, the more pollution you’ll find.”

The watershed draft plan covers more than 100 pages and is broken into six parts. It was prepared by the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality and includes input gathered from the Health Department, Virginia Tech and Fairview Beach Homeowners Association.

All these groups have searched for years for the source of the pollution, but no “smoking gun” has been found. County and state officials have inspected and repaired sewer lines nearby and septic sites at an aging trailer park.

Howard said committee members know the contaminants are a combination of human, animal and bird waste, but don’t know from where they originate.

“A lot of it is runoff, the water rushes off to the river, takes everything in its path,” Howard said. “We’re trying to figure out where it is picking up pollution.”

Occasional high levels of bacteria have been found along the mile-long beach for years. Until 2013, Fairview Beach regularly was at the top of the state’s list of 46 beaches cited for having the most swimming advisories issued in a season.

Already in 2014, the Fairview Beach advisories account for one-third of the warnings posted on Virginia beaches.

Water is tested by the Health Department weekly, at three spots, during the swimming and boating season. Advisories are posted when bacteria called enterococci exceed state limits. The bacteria itself are harmless, but indicate the presence of harmful microbes in human or animal waste, which can cause gastrointestinal illness and eye and ear infections.

The state water quality standard is 104 colony-forming units per 100 milliliters of water. When Fairview Beach was under advisory this year, the number of bacteria-forming units ranged from 106 to 283 per 100 milliliters of water, according to the Health Department’s website.

Howard told fellow board members that solutions won’t be found overnight.

“It’s taken a long time to get where we are, but it’s going to take a long time to get out of where we are,” he said. “This is about a 10-year project.”

He said later he believes most of the work to mitigate the pollution can be done in three to five years, but other solutions outlined in the watershed plan could take up to a decade.

The DEQ’s website said Fairview Beach is considered impaired under the Clean Water Act because it does not meet the state’s water quality standards for recreation. The watershed plan aims to identify corrective actions to restore quality, along with their costs, benefits and environmental impacts.

The steering committee, along with Fairview Beach resident Mike Bennett, will present the information it has gathered to the public at 5:30 p.m. Wednesday July 23 at the Smoot Memorial Library.

The session will be the final public meeting on the watershed plan. Then, DEQ will take the draft and incorporate the work of the steering committee and comments from the public.

Cathy Dyson: 540/374-5425