The James River Association recently released its State of the James report, giving the body of water a B- rating for 2018. As the river flows for more than 400 miles through Virginia, creating a portion of Albemarle County’s southern border along its voyage to the Chesapeake Bay, its health is a hefty indicator of water quality throughout the state. Among its significant tributaries is the Rivanna River, which has a watershed that covers all of the city of Charlottesville and a substantial portion of Albemarle County. Several local groups are helping to ensure water quality in the Rivanna watershed and, by extension, a large swath of Virginia.
Reservoirs and Waste Not
Beyond the monitoring of river and stream conditions, local organizations are working near the sources of our waterways to ensure safe drinking water and recreational spaces.
“Everything we do flows downstream through the Rivanna and into the James River,” said Andrea Terry, Water Resources Manager for the Rivanna Water & Sewer Authority.
She called RWSA a “wholesale water provider with two customers: the city of Charlottesville and Albemarle County Service Authority.”
“We think about it in terms of wholesale versus retail. We are the wholesalers. We have two accounts with each of those agencies and then they are the ones the bill everyone out for the retail service.”
With five reservoirs throughout the county and two river intakes, ongoing water quality monitoring ensures the safety of the water for consumption.
“When we are monitoring our reservoirs for water quality, we’re looking at algal counts. How much algae is in the reservoir, if it’s the harmful algae,” Terry said.
An algal bloom is an excessive growth of algae. While not all blooms are harmful, some, like blue-green algae, can release toxins into the water.
As algal blooms are a result from warmer temperatures in the water, Terry said the organization “steps up” its monitoring process from April to November.
“That [runoff] carries nitrogen and phosphorous, which is like a fertilizer for the blooms,” Kennedy said.
Meanwhile, Terry said, RWSA watches for trigger levels to determine if reservoir water needs treated.
“Depending on what comes back, we have a water quality monitoring program that gives us trigger levels based on how much algae is in the water on whether or not we need to do a reservoir treatment,” she said.
Terry said a chemical called SeClear, which is made of copper sulfate, can be put into reservoirs that have indications of harmful algal blooms.
“The reason we do so much monitoring is so we’re not just throwing it out there periodically,” Terry said. “We’re paying attention to make sure it’s really needed and it’s part of our treatment.”
Terry said that RWSA is not required to test for algal blooms, but it does so voluntarily and proactively.
“We know it will help with the water quality going into the treatment plants,” Terry said. “I think, eventually, utilities will be required to monitor for harmful algae.”
The DEQ’s Kennedy said that this past summer’s conditions were “ripe” for algal blooms, as there was lower rainfall and fairly high temperatures — this followed a spring that brought a lot of rain and runoff into water bodies.
Locally, RWSA connects to the Rivanna Conservation Alliance, a nonprofit organization that was created in 2016 to protect the Rivanna’s health. Terry is also a member of RCA science advisory committee.
“We do coordinate with RCA a lot,” Terry said. “Some of the water they collect is in the watersheds of our reservoirs so that data is very helpful information for us to have.”
RWSA also manages wastewater in the city and county, and its facility along Moores Creek is its largest treatment facility. According to Dave Tungate, the director of operations, it treated an average of 11.5 million gallons of sewage in 2018.
At the various facilities in the area, wastewater undergoes various levels of treatment to remove grit and debris, along with nitrogen and phosphorous. Ultraviolet light is used for disinfection — with the Stone-Robinson facility near Scottsville using chlorine — before water is returned to receiving streams and rivers that lead to the Chesapeake Bay.
“So, getting the stuff you see in the wastewater out is easy to do,” Tungate said.
Meanwhile, it’s getting the nitrogen and phosphorous out of the water that is crucial.
“Once it’s been cleaned up, we then disinfect it and dump it back into Moores Creek.” Tungate said. “We are continuously adding water back into Moores Creek, which leads to the Rivanna then the James then Chesapeake Bay.”
In its approach for watershed protection, RCA has water quality monitoring programs and does community outreach for education and improvement projects like the planting of riparian buffers along streams. Riparian buffers are natural vegetation at the edge of stream banks that help control erosion and buffer pollutants from rain runoff into streams.
“We just try and get people familiar with this amazing resource that they have in their community — the Rivanna — and then educate about it and also help people learn what they can do to improve it,” said Julia Ela, RCA’s operations director. “So, it’s a multifaceted approach.”
RCA came to fruition as a merger between the Rivanna Conservation Society and Stream Watch. As part of its ongoing work RCA does bacterial and benthic monitoring — both of which are Level III certified through the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality. This certification allows volunteer monitoring data to be collected by the department as if the samples had been collected by state or other government officials. The bacterial monitoring checks for levels of E. coli in streams, while the benthic monitoring examines the macroinvertebrates, bottom-dwelling bugs, that live in streams. Their health is reflective of the river’s health.
As RCA is Level III certified, its monitoring helps DEQ track water quality in the area. John Kennedy, director of the DEQ’s office of ecology, said that DEQ produces a water quality characterization report every two years and publishes a list of impaired waters that don’t meet quality standards.
“Because of the data citizen groups generate for us, it increases our ability to cover the state,” he said. “The data that they generate is good.”
There are different things water quality monitors like RCA look for, such as adapted stream condition index, which is used in benthic monitoring to calculate overall stream health based on macroinvertebrates found. They also look for signs of E. coli, bacteria found in the intestines of animals and humans, which is indicative of recent sewage or animal contamination. Colony forming units is the number of E. coli bacteria found in a 100-milliliter sample of water. Any samples that exceed 235 CFU for that size fail DEQ quality standards. Lastly, total maximum daily load is the maximum amount of a pollutant a body of water can receive and still meet quality standards. This term is often used in a plan for restoring repaired waters.
In the State of the James report, some of its B- rating was attributed to the excessive rainfall in the summer of 2018, rainfall that also affected the Rivanna. The Rivanna watershed’s deadly May 2018 flooding caused a temporary spike in bacteria and caused damage to some buffers along the watershed which could have affected the macroinvertebrates.
“We did notice impacts from the 2018 flooding in our habitat assessments of sites (washouts, erosion, etc.), which we complete with our sampling,” Ela said in an email. “But we are still completing the trends analysis that will tell us if there was a difference in the benthic communities as a result of last year’s flooding.”
RCA has also partnered with Ecosystem Services for the Rivanna Prioritization Study and Capacity Building Project. Work on the project, which is funded by the National Fish & Wildlife Foundation, is expected to begin this month and run through September 2020.
The project will identify potential areas for bank stabilization and riparian buffers.
Ela also said RCA plans to release its 2019 stream health report next month.
What can we do to help?
Kennedy said that he’s seen rain gardens or rain buckets becoming more popular — RCA has one at its labs at its River Road address in the city.
Given that its labs are in an industrial part of town with a lot of pavement, Ela said their rain garden fosters plant growth and reduces some pavement runoff into local water.
Kennedy said that residents also have a variety of things they can do to do their part in protecting water quality.
“Landscaping with native plants,” He suggested. “Making sure you’re recycling used oil from your automobile. Proper disposal of chemicals and application rates for fertilizer on your lawn and at a time of the year like fall when it’s less likely to runoff from a large rain event. Cleaning up after your pets.”
While noting the rural and urban characteristics along various parts of the Rivanna and James rivers, he stressed that fecal matter from pets or livestock contribute to pollution in waters.
“That’s a big one because most of the water in the state if there’s a pollution problem, it’s almost always related to bacteria levels,” Kennedy said.
He also noted runoff from agricultural land can negatively affect waterways.
Organizations like RCA also advocate for riparian buffers and fencing to keep animals in agricultural areas out of streams, reducing chemical use on lands, as well as maintaining septic systems — as these factors are main triggers for bacteria in water.
Meanwhile, Ela notes the efforts of locals and local organizations to maintain or improve water quality.
“We’re all working towards a similar goal,” Ela said. “It’s nice in a small community you can have good partnerships.”