Help a sick member of our community

Published 9:24 pm Friday, July 17, 2020

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By Geoff Payne

Suffolk is rapidly growing, and this has many positive and negative effects on our quality of life. One casualty that you may not be aware of is the deteriorating health of the Nansemond River and its tributaries.

It may alarm you to know that the bacteria count in much of the river after a major rainfall is well in excess of federal standards for safe recreational use. How many of your family members or friends swim or fish or boat in the river?

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The Nansemond River runs 20 miles from downtown Suffolk to where it meets the James River. Major tributaries include Bennett’s Creek and Chuckatuck Creek. A hundred years ago, the river was not much more than an open sewer. Direct sewage disposal, poor septic tanks, slaughterhouses and meat packing plants, and poor farming practices all contributed to dangerous bacteria levels.

The river was first closed for oyster harvesting in 1929. For the next 80 years, the water quality in the river slowly improved as public health policies along with city enforcement addressed each of these problems. The oyster beds were largely reopened.

However, in the last 20 years, the city has grown rapidly, and as a result we have seen river conditions begin to deteriorate again.

Increasing bacteria levels caused the State to impose new shellfish harvesting restrictions in 2014, 2017 and 2019. The full closures and conditional closures are impacting Suffolk’s oyster harvesting industry. Citizens can view the closed areas at

The Nansemond River Preservation Alliance, using standards accepted throughout the Chesapeake Bay, gives the Nansemond River an F grade for water quality based on bacterial counts. The Virginia Department of Environmental Quality and Virginia Department of Health Division of Shellfish Safety report the bacterial source as non-point source — not from one specific source. This means we all contribute to the problem to a larger or lesser extent.

Suspended solids do a couple of harmful things. First, they provide bacteria with a surface on which to live and breed. Second, they prevent sunlight penetrating the water. Less sunlight means less growth of aquatic vegetation, essential for the health of a river. NRPA asked a Suffolk waterman who has been harvesting crabs in the Nansemond for more than 40 years to survey the river for any weed growth on the River bottom. He found none. This is not a sign of a healthy river.

The suspended solids settle to the River bottom and add to the suffocating mud we are all familiar with. If you dig down into the mud you should find all sorts of critters: worms, mollusks, larvae. Last September, NRPA sampled the river bottom in five different locations, but did not find anything living in the sediment. There are still plenty of fish, shrimp and crabs above the mud, but nothing in it. NRPA contacted a local professor who conducts scientific studies in this area. He reported that 70% of the samples they have taken in the river have depleted levels of the “critters” in the mud.

The Nansemond River watershed is almost entirely with the Suffolk city limits, so we cannot blame anyone else for the condition of the river. There are not any obvious major polluters that we can go after. The problem is every one of us. Everyone contributes to a greater or lesser extent to the pollution in the river.

NRPA asks everyone to avoid using excess fertilizer and to take steps to avoid any run off. Respect the riparian buffer and replant with native trees and shrubs to minimize stormwater runoff from your land into the storm drains, ditches or waterways. This applies to all property owners, not just those with waterfront property.

Please join NRPA and other environmental organizations that are leading the effort to educate citizens to be environmental stewards and also change the status quo on regulations. All of these factors make the NRPA’s work crucial to the health of the Nansemond River watershed.

Information about our local waterways, NRPA’s projects and activities, and ways for you to Make A Difference can be found at: or

Geoff Payne is chair of the Water Quality Committee and a board member of the Nansemond River Preservation Alliance.