A recent study has confirmed something James City County officials have thought all along: cleaning up the James River may effectively lead to a cleaner Chesapeake Bay.
The James River Association, which focuses on cleaning and protecting the James River, contracted with the Center for Watershed Protection for a study to determine whether cleaning the river could clean the Bay. For the study, CWP looked at the cleanup plans for James River watersheds in three localities: James City County, the City of Lynchburg and the City of Richmond.
The James River watersheds flow into the river, which flows into the Chesapeake Bay, so the study examined whether focusing on watershed cleanup would trickle down to make for a cleaner Bay, and found it would.
While the study was just released Tuesday, James City County Stormwater Director Fran Geissler is already optimistic and pleased with the study because it supports ideas James City County has had all along.
“The fear among some people is the emphasis on the Chesapeake Bay cleanup will mean we spend less time and effort cleaning up our local waterways,” Geissler said, but cleaning up the local waterways and cleaning up the bay are mutually inclusive. “If you do good for your local waterways, you do good for the bay, and I think also, conversely, if you do good for the Chesapeake Bay you also do good for your local waterways.”
Pollution in the James River is measured by bacteria, which can make the river unsafe for swimming or fishing. Pollution in the Chesapeake Bay is measured by nutrients — phosphorus and nitrogen — and sediment. While phosphorus and nitrogen are essential nutrients, too much can lead to algae overgrowth and can degrade the water quality overtime.
The Bay’s pollution budget, which says how much pollution the Bay can handle, caps nitrogen at 187 million pounds and phosphorous at 12 million pounds. In a 2010 report, nitrogen levels in the bay were measured at 300 million pounds and phosphorus was measured at 18 million pounds.
According to the JRA study, under all the cleanup methods listed in the James City County’s cleanup plan for the James River watersheds, an estimated 33,740 pounds of nitrogen could be reduced per year; an estimated 9,957 pounds per year of phosphorus could be reduced and an estimated 635,918 pounds of sediment could be reduced per year.
Because the James River cleanup plan focuses on bacteria and the Chesapeake Bay cleanup plan focuses on nutrients, the Chesapeake Bay Program does not recognize all cleanup practices as effective. In the county’s cleanup plan, eight options are listed: sanitary sewer improvements, septic system programs, stormwater quality programs, boating programs, pet waste programs, stream and wetland restoration, land use management and wildlife controls.
The Chesapeake Bay Program doesn’t recognize some of the methods, including pet waste collection, so the study is intended to encourage the program to accept additional cleanup methods.
Using only Chesapeake Bay Program-approved practices, which don’t include pet waste collection programs, James City County could reduce an estimated 3,755 pounds per year of nitrogen, an estimated 1,049 pounds per year of phosphorous and an estimated 633,719 pounds per year of sediment.
By 2025, which is the cutoff year for reaching pollution goals in the Chesapeake Bay, James City County could reduce an estimated 6,277 pounds per year of nitrogen, an estimated 1,117 pounds per year of phosphorus and an estimated 456,391 pounds per year of sediment.
In an executive summary about the JRA study, projections are made for how various water quality goals will be met if cleanup plans are followed by James City County, the City of Richmond and the City of Lynchburg.
If James City County follows all practices outlined in its cleanup plan to reduce pollution, the nitrogen pollution target for the Bay would be met and surpassed at an estimated 538 percent, as would the phosphorus target at an estimated 891 percent, and the sediment target at an estimated 139 percent.
If James City County were to follow only the Chesapeake Bay Program-approved practices for reducing pollution, only an estimated 60 percent of the nitrogen target would be reached, an estimated 94 percent of the phosphorus target would be reached, and an estimated 139 percent of the suspended solids target would be reached.
In James City County, some cleanup practices are already being followed. Pet waste collection stations have been provided at all county parks and in some neighborhoods willing to maintain the stations, including Colonial Heritage. A short study was done on septic systems in the county, but not many problems were found there, Geissler said, because the health department stays on top of septic issues.
Additionally, the county monitors and screens waterways to look for bacteria colonies. The bacteria numbers have decreased.
“At least from our standpoint, we are seeing an improvement in the water quality. The bacteria loads seem to be lower than what they were five years ago. We are cautiously optimistic,” Geissler said.
While James City County is plugging away at cleaning up local waters, citizens are also asked to help. Geissler outlined several actions that can help reduce pollution in local water. Even citizens who do not live near the water affect it.
Citizens should pick up pet waste and dispose of it in a non-biodegradable plastic bag and throw it into a trash can. Bacteria in pet waste can live for two years in the environment. Trash goes to a landfill, so biodegradable bags are not necessary. Citizens should also properly dispose of fats, oils and grease. For citizens with yards, only the amount and type of fertilizer needed should be used on plants, because the excess washes into waterways; native plants should be planted. Citizens with septic systems should maintain them.
The James River Association also asks citizens who notice a problem on the James River, such as fish kills or illegal dumping, to email firstname.lastname@example.org.
“Cleaning up the James River and the Chesapeake Bay starts at the local level,” said Bill Street, CEO of the James River Association, in a release. “Water quality investments are needed to address local pollution problems and will have direct local benefits. The results of this study show that much of the localities’ responsibilities under the Chesapeake Bay Cleanup can be met at the same time.”