Not the final word

Published 7:35 pm Saturday, May 22, 2010

For almost 15 years, now, the Nansemond River has been considered too polluted for swimming and too polluted for shellfishing. That’s 15 years that the river’s primary purpose no longer has been about providing people with recreational opportunities or the chance to earn a living. Fifteen years that its main role has been to provide beautiful scenery.

There is, of course, nothing wrong with the river as a scenic backdrop to life in Suffolk. Several well-known Hampton Roads artists have made Nansemond River scenes a big part of their repertoire, and even those without an artistic bent can easily enjoy the beauty of a sunset over the Nansemond, of fog along the shorelines, of birds nesting on the pilings of old piers.

But most folks in Suffolk are old enough to remember when the Nansemond River was much more, when it provided a livelihood for oystermen, when anyone willing to risk a jellyfish encounter could find riverside access and take a swim without worrying about resulting bacterial infections.

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The Virginia Department of Environmental Quality, which was the agency that sounded the alarm about the Nansemond back in 1996, has joined with the Hampton Roads Planning District Commission to work out a solution to the problem of the polluted river, and the agencies met with area citizens last week to share their proposed plans.

The agencies have suggested controlling river pollution primarily by promoting regular septic pump-outs, by marking storm sewers so that people understand they drain to the river, by improving sanitary sewer systems and by educating residents about proper disposal of pet waste.

They propose expanding water quality monitoring, establishing a no-discharge zone on the river, implementing a living shoreline program and educating horse owners on proper disposal of manure.

The suggestions could be a good start, but they seem a bit toothless, considering what’s at stake. There are no recommended timelines for reducing the pollution to non-hazardous levels. And there are no real consequences proposed for those who contribute to the pollution.

Officials from the HRPDC suggested that the plan would be open to modification, even after it has been adopted. That’s a good thing, because the river and those who love it cry out for stronger protections. The half-measures and suggestions proposed in the early stages of this process must not be allowed to be the final word on the matter.