What’s in the water?

Published 11:19 pm Wednesday, June 15, 2011

The Nansemond River, shown above at Constant’s Wharf, received dismal grades on a recent pollution report card. The river is polluted by, among other things, trash, fertilizer and oil from street runoff, shown in insets.

Report shows river pollution improving, but still not great

If the Nansemond River were a grade-school student, its parents would be very disappointed.

The river didn’t receive a single “A” on its 2010 report card, which was released Tuesday. The report card is prepared by the Nansemond River Preservation Alliance.

The waterway failed only one subject — the bacteria level in the upper Nansemond, which is so impaired that it is closed to swimming. However, it got D’s in several subjects, including the nitrogen and phosphorus levels in the upper Nansemond and its amount of open space and public access.

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But the river is improving from where it was 30 years ago, said Nick Worth, water quality committee chairman with the Nansemond River Preservation Alliance.

“Things are getting a little bit better,” Worth said. “But they’re still not good in the upper half of the Nansemond River.”

From the river’s headwaters to about the old King’s Highway Bridge, pollution levels are so bad that swimming in the water is prohibited. But as it gets closer to the James River, the Nansemond is even open to oyster harvesting.

“That means it has to be pretty darn clean,” Worth said. “It’s really a tale of two rivers with regard to the bacteria pollution.”

The river’s original headwaters — Lake Meade, Lake Kilby and Lake Cohoon — all have been dammed to create a water source. That means there’s not a lot of water flowing downstream, other than rainwater. Pollution in the lower Nansemond is better because it mixes with the waters of the James River, Worth said.

But just where all the pollution is coming from is a hard question to answer.

“We don’t know that there’s a point source,” Worth said, referring to any sewage treatment plant or similar facility that would dump pollution directly into the river. “That puts it into the category of guesswork.”

Though nobody knows exactly why the Nansemond is so polluted, most experts believe the majority of the Nansemond’s pollution comes from material carried into it by rainwater runoff, Worth said. Anytime it rains, the water picks up everything in its path — oil, trash, pet waste, farm products and more — and carries it to the nearest storm drain.

“It’s compounded by the fact there isn’t really a flushing flow,” Worth said. “That’s why street cleaning is really important, as mundane as we all think it may be.”

Worth added that city personnel, especially those in the Public Works and Public Utilities departments, are working hard to make improvements in the river.

Ordinary citizens can help the river’s water quality by not littering, cleaning up their pet’s waste and never dumping anything down a storm drain.

For more information, visit the alliance’s website at www.nansemondriversavers.org.