VDH: More water tests needed

Published 10:09 pm Thursday, April 21, 2016

The Virginia Department of Health will ramp up testing and monitoring of water quality in the Nansemond River, with a focus on identifying the source of increasingly high bacteria levels in the watershed.

“We need to figure out what is causing these levels to get so high,” said Keith Skiles, director of the department’s shellfish sanitation division, during the Nansemond River Preservation Alliance’s annual River Talk Tuesday. “We are going to try to understand the reason for these spikes in contamination.”

The department recently hired two new employees for the initiative, Skiles said. He and Robbie Johnson, co-owner of Johnson & Sons Seafood in Eclipse, were guest speakers at NRPA’s event at the C.E.&H. Ruritan Hall.

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The state health department has periodically closed portions of the Nansemond River for shellfish harvesting due to the high levels of bacteria since 1933. Because of the repeated high bacteria levels, the state health department has had to expand the closure areas over the past 80 years along the Nansemond River and most recently had to close all of Bennett’s and Knott’s creeks to shellfish harvesting.

In 2014 and 2015, the condemned area along the Nansemond River grew by a total of 884 acres, according to the NRPA.

The VDH uses test results of 30 water samples taken over two years to make closure determinations for shellfish, Skiles said.

More frequent testing is done after severe weather or after other special circumstances that could trigger bacteria levels to increase, he said. Oftentimes, the Nansemond’s test results are inconsistent and unpredictable, according to Skiles.

Johnson said he is “cautiously optimistic” that the state could identify a source, noting that contaminant levels have limited the areas where his company can harvest oysters in recent years.

“But this is the most positive of anything that has happened in a long time,” Johnson said.