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The outgoing director of a federal agency tasked with cleaning up the Chesapeake Bay said Friday that a multi-decade effort is showing signs of progress.
“What we’ve seen are shrinking dead zones, areas where there is little to no oxygen and nothing can live,” said Nick DiPasquale, director of a partnership led by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency that coordinates efforts to reduce pollution in the bay’s 64,000 square mile watershed.
DiPasquale, who is soon to retire, told attendees of the second Rivanna River Renaissance Conference that efforts to cut federal-led clean-up efforts are demoralizing at a time when data shows the population of blue crabs has rebounded and underwater grasses are spreading wider.
The Chesapeake Bay Office was founded in 1983 and is under threat from federal budget cuts as well as potential Congressional action to limit its scope. This month, Congressman Bob Goodlatte (R-6th) introduced an amendment into a spending bill that would prevent the EPA from enforcing pollution limits.
Albemarle County, Charlottesville and other localities across the state are currently subject to a pollution-reduction mandate from the EPA that is enforced by the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality. In order to obtain a permit to discharge stormwater, localities must demonstrate to the state agency that they are reducing the levels of sediment, nitrogen and phosphorous that flow downstream.
The EPA and the DEQ also have provided funds to help upgrade wastewater facilities to make them more efficient and less polluting. Locally, the Rivanna Water and Sewer Authority renovated the Moores Creek Wastewater Treatment Plan at a cost of $48 million, $21 million of which came from the state’s water quality improvement fund.
DiPasquale said pollution reduction efforts are measured in decades, and not by short-term election cycles.
“I’m in this because my belief is that we need to protect natural resources and the natural world because we depend on it for our lives,” DiPasquale said. “But we’re also going to have to turn the discussion around a little and focus on the economic benefits that come from having a healthy ecosystem.”
With that in mind, the conference also highlighted efforts the city, the county and the private sector are making to make the Rivanna River more of a focal point in the community.
The Thomas Jefferson Planning District Commission is currently working on a plan to highlight the river’s economic and environmental benefits to both communities.
“Our river is still pretty natural and one of the key goals of our process is not to lose headway on keeping it a natural asset,” said Wood Hudson, a planner with the TJPDC.
Chris Gensic, a trail planner with the city, said having more pathways along the river and its tributaries will build awareness of area waterways.
“At the end of the day, we hope there are a lot more people who are on the trails who do become aware of the water and the importance of it,” Gensic said. That will lead to more people who can report issues such as broken sewer pipes and litter.
Gensic’s counterpart in Albemarle County has a similar view and is seeking to connect trails from Berkmar Drive Extended to future county parkland on the Rivanna at Buck Island.
“I think of it a lot more as building green infrastructure than trail-building,” said Dan Mahon, the county’s outdoor recreation supervisor. “I view it as riparian management that happens to have trails.”
The county soon will open a new boat ramp and pocket park on the south fork of the Rivanna River just east of the dam that creates the South Fork Rivanna Reservoir.
The first day of the conference concluded with workshops on environmental education with lessons on the lifeforms that live in the river who habitats are threatened by sediment and who benefit from clean-up efforts.
DiPasquale lauded local action.
“We know what’s happening in Washington,” DiPasquale said. “We are probably not going to be funded at previous levels, even though 70 percent of our funds go out into the states.”
DiPasquale said it will become more important for communities to come up with their own funding mechanism to pay for water quality improvement programs. Charlottesville enacted a utility fee in 2013 that helps pay for replacement of stormwater pipes as well as other methods of slowing down floods that occur after sudden rainfall.
“We’ve got streams that are serving as major corridors for stormwater runoff and the power of that runoff is causing erosion which leads to sediment,” said Kristel Riddervold, the city’s environmental coordinator.
Albemarle is considering charging its own fee which could go into effect next year. The Board of Supervisors will be briefed on that topic at their meeting Oct. 4.
The conference continues Saturday with a daylong arts and music festival called Rockin’ the Rivanna that begins at 10 a.m. at Darden Towe Park.
“For years we’ve been hearing about the science of the river but there are folks in our community who can speak to the soul and the spirit and that’s what tomorrow is about,” Mahon said.