Nansemond River water quality cause for concern

Published 10:00 am Wednesday, May 22, 2024

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The quality of the Nansemond River is not scoring well according to the report by the Nansemond River Preservation Alliance.

The State of the Nansemond River report classified the river as “impaired” due to condemned shellfish areas, categorized by location with increased bacteria levels causing closure to oyster grounds.

Nansemond River Preservation Alliance President and CEO Beth Cross says these classifications are based on the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) guidelines and state and city standards. Despite the classifications, Cross emphasizes that this does not mean people should be afraid to be in the river.

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“It means that we should see a red flag: that if it is not good enough for oysters, we should pay attention to what it means for humans,” Cross said. “But it doesn’t mean we need to be scared of it or we need to run from the river, it just means we need to pay attention. We have a chance to change this and could actually be really fun in our own backyards. But it’s something that we have to pay attention to.”

The river’s map included with the report shows flow in the lower and middle areas; however, things change in the upper area.

“So that upper part of the river that goes all the way up to Constant’s Wharf, there is less and less water flow…but the headwaters were dammed off when we made the water sources for Norfolk and Portsmouth with Lake Meade and the Western Branch reservoir,” Cross said. “And so, there’s really no fresh water or water flow, and I hate to use this expression, but it really does identify it which is, it’s almost like a toilet that can’t be flushed in some areas where things that we don’t realize that are in our yards and on our street…that washes down when it rains and goes into the river, but especially in the upper river, there’s not a great source of being able to wash it down the river.”

Noting that nonexistent flow results from cutting off the headwaters of any river, Cross explains that the cause of these issues is various factors, namely “an increase in human activity.”

“So our 23 miles of river was not meant to handle as much runoff and pollution that it’s seeing and a lot of that is from nonpoint sources, which means you can’t really put a finger on it,” she said. “If it was a burst pipe or if there was a business that was unloading toxic waste into the river through our monthly river water testing and the city testing water, we would be able to find a source. But when it’s runoff from stormwater management, when it’s runoff from yards, we can’t pinpoint exactly where it’s coming from because it’s coming from all of us.”

Cross says this is important for the Suffolk community to pay attention to.

“Because it’s not necessarily pointing [the] finger at who’s not doing a good job, it’s all of us saying ‘Hey, we’re acting like humans and without paying attention to what we’re doing, [it’s] going to hurt the world around us,’” Cross said. “There’s less trees to filter, there’s less grass to filter, there’s more pavement and more activity happening in our city, which comes with people, we just need to be more smart about how we do it.”

The river’s status is based on five indicators: bacteria, where bacteria levels indicate viruses and pathogens that are harmful to humans; turbidity, the measure of suspended solids/particles in the water; dissolved oxygen, the concentration of oxygen present in the water; and both nitrates and phosphates, nutrients natural to aquatic ecosystems. Too much of these can cause harmful disruption. 

To help make a change, Cross says homeowners should start paying attention to their own backyard.

“If we as homeowners or even apartment dwellers start to take action on what you see in our backyard, and that means plastics, chemicals, fertilizers, animal waste, all of that is breaking down into our river. And it’s just like if you were to eat plastic, your body doesn’t know what to do with it. The river doesn’t know what to do with it and so, it’s sticking around at higher levels than it ever had,” she said.

Cross says that business owners and developers should lead in sustainable practices while also paying attention to treating the land properly during development.

“We’re not even saying we’re against development, but there are smart ways to do it, to cut down on our addiction to pavement, to cut down on deforestation, because we’re creating more pressure on the land and the river that we have left,” Cross said. “When we cut it down, we take apart a 40-year-old oak that can filter gallons and gallons of water every week and we put in a little bush from Lowe’s that is not going to filter much of anything and not be a great habitat or food source for anything that’s around.”

On city leadership, Cross expressed leaders adopting “real goals for clean water.”

“You’ve seen this happen in cities that have had restored rivers, like the Elizabeth River [and] like the Lynnhaven River. It’s when the city and the community as a whole have the same goal with clean water,” she said. “We can reach our objectives quicker and celebrate what works and know what doesn’t a little bit better instead of just pointing the finger at who’s doing what.”

The full report is available at