Saving the Nansemond

Published 10:30 pm Monday, February 15, 2010

When European settlers sailed up the Nansemond River from their outposts along the James during the 17th century, they discovered unspoiled land and clean waters, along with fertile fishing grounds and vast tracts of land occupied by a small band of Indians.

In the decades that followed, as Europeans settled into the area, some of the Nansemond Indians became Christians and left the tribal life, and others fled southwest to the Nottoway River. During the first quarter of the 18th century, the remaining Christianized Nansemonds moved to the Dismal Swamp, finally leaving their river to the interlopers.

The river would become an important resource for the settlers, and it would remain important to the city of Suffolk for hundreds of years, providing food, transportation, wildlife habitat and recreation for generations of Suffolk citizens, just as it had for the Indians who preceded them.

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Sadly, the more it was used — and the more it has been subjected to development pressures — the more the Nansemond River has suffered. Today, it is unsafe to eat shellfish harvested from some portions of the river, and in 1996 the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality warned against swimming in it because of high levels of the potentially dangerous fecal coliform bacteria. While the river maintains its external beauty, the experts say that it is sick and in need of help.

A diverse group of local citizens has joined forces to provide that help. Last week, the Nansemond River Preservation Alliance announced it had formed “to educate the public about the state of the Nansemond River and promote actions to preserve water quality, the rural setting and wetlands.”

One of the organization’s stated goals is to get the city of Suffolk to begin fully implementing and enforcing the standards of the Chesapeake Bay Preservation Act, one of whose tenets is that development should not be allowed within 100 feet of rivers and streams that drain into the Bay. The group also is likely to press for accountability by farmers and other landowners for the chemicals they use that drain into the river.

Such actions are sure to raise the hackles of some developers, farmers and landscapers. But there’s ample reason for the city and its residents to want the Nansemond River once again to be a place where they can swim and fish. It’s heartening that a group has formed to step in on behalf of both the river and the people who love it.