State of the Nansemond report released

Published 3:18 pm Thursday, November 4, 2021

A new report on the health of the 23-mile Nansemond River from the Nansemond River Preservation Alliance paints a clear picture of a river in ill health, and it calls upon local and state officials to take measures to mitigate the effect of pollutants and require developers to act to prevent runoff into it.

The report looked at the status of the river using five indicators: bacteria, oxygen, nitrates, phosphates and suspended solids, and it classified the majority of the river as impaired.

Though the river gets good marks on areas such as nitrogen levels and bacteria meeting national standards in the Lower Nansemond, it gets failing marks for bacteria levels in the Upper Nansemond, high phosphorus levels and dissolved oxygen depletion in the Upper Nansemond, especially in the summer.

But lower grades on the report also denote low dissolved oxygen conditions also becoming more prevalent in the Lower Nansemond and Middle Nansemond.

It also gives low marks to stormwater and runoff control, and said “proper compliance by developers, contractors and homeowners of environmental regulations, especially (the) Chesapeake Bay Preservation Act and stormwater regs” are needed.

The Lower Nansemond part of the river does receive an “A” mark for bacteria levels for safe swimming meeting national standards, and the report gives an “A” for nitrogen levels meeting standards.

“The river is changing slowly — it’s a big system and it doesn’t change quickly,” said Geoff Payne, chairman of NRPA’s water quality committee. “But it’s changing in the wrong direction, and the more we develop the city, the faster it’s going to change in the wrong direction, and there is nothing in the regulations that’s going to change to give the river any hope. So something has to change in the legislation.”

The report analyzed sampling data collected by NRPA, Suffolk Public Works and the state department of health’s division of shellfish safety, but it did cite challenges due to COVID-19 that it said makes interpreting results less reliable than normal due to limited data.

It notes that fecal bacteria levels exceed national standards, which have required the Virginia Department of Health’s Department of Shellfish Safety to close sections of approved oyster harvest growing in the city’s waterways. It also noted frequent elevated bacteria levels after major rains, and suspended solid levels remaining high, which it says aids bacteria persistence and blocks sunlight. It also said underwater grasses to support marine life are “virtually non-existent in the river.”

The Nansemond River originates near downtown Suffolk and flows for more than 23 miles until it meets up with the James River at the Godwin Bridge. Thirteen creeks flow into the river, with Chuckatuck and Bennett’s Creek being the largest. According to the NRPA, the river has no significant source of freshwater except for stormwater runoff that comes from a major rain.

The state department of health says people should avoid swimming in natural waters for 48 hours after a heavy rain, avoid swallowing water when swimming and avoid getting water up one’s nose, especially in warm shallow water. People should also avoid swimming or wading in water with open wounds or cuts.

The report notes that “Suffolk’s council and city staff, developers and citizens need to balance commercial and residential development with adequate pollution prevention measures to restore the river to full health for ourselves and future generations.”

Because the city has no public beaches, the state department of health does not have to put out any warnings regarding recreational waterway activities.

It said more frequent major rain events are creating more situations where the city and the Hampton Roads Sanitation District sanitary sewer systems are overwhelmed, which puts raw sewage into storm drains and then later into the river.

In recent years, NRPA has partnered with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation on oyster restoration efforts, but high bacteria levels have continued to diminish commercial oyster grounds.

“The increasing acreage of condemned areas is devastating to the local commercial watermen industry,” the report states. “This increase can be attributed to, in part, an increase in residential and commercial development along with an increase in population.”

There have been a pair of sewage spills into Shingle Creek in the last 13 months — in September 2020 and again this past May.

Continuing its recommendations from its 2018 report, the NRPA calls on the city to set a goal and contribute water quality objectives in the Nansemond River and its tributaries. It should also document all corrective measures related to water quality that are filed by a landowner’s lot and provide residents with a yearly report denoting actions taken, the status of water quality compliance and future plans to mitigate negative impacts upon the river.

“Suffolk’s council and city staff, developers and citizens need to balance commercial and residential development with adequate pollution prevention measures to restore the river to full health for ourselves and future generations.”

In the next one to five years, the report recommends the city adopt a goal for clean water with measurable objectives to reach it, mark a 100-foot vegetative buffer line before construction starts and provide in-service environmental training to city staff who deal with Chesapeake Bay Preservation Act issues. The report also calls for the city to “vigorously enforce” the city’s clean water section of the unified development ordinance and begin a public process to inform the public of the status of the city’s clean water efforts.

Longer-term, it wants the city to start an office of environmental quality and add a chapter on environmental planning to the city’s future development plan.

“One of the big attractions in Suffolk is the water,” Payne said. “We’ve got the river, we’ve got the lakes. Even the lakes are impaired. The lakes are the drinking water supply — they’re impaired. They have high bacteria levels, so as they deteriorate, Suffolk’s losing a large potential revenue source because people aren’t going to come here if it’s well-known that the waters are contaminated.”

The 2021 State of the Nansemond River Report and Report Card can be found online at https://www.cleanmyrivers.com/s/NRPA_2021-Annual-Report_Final.pdf.