As recreational use in some areas of the Culpeper County watershed has been deemed unsafe due to feces-induced bacteria levels, the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality has started working alongside residents to solve the issue.
Unsafe bacteria levels have resulted in Mountain Run, Muddy Run and Hazel River landing on the state’s dirty water list. The watershed covers about 100,000 acres in the town and county, which includes the entirety of the town and 40% of the county. Just over half of that land is forest, a fourth is pasture and the remainder is developed or cropland.
The VDEQ recently held a virtual work session with area stakeholders to commence the public participation period in a process that will eventually lead to the development of a plan to curb the bacteria levels.
During that virtual meeting, David Evans of VDEQ explained that the primary sources of bacteria are agricultural runoff, inadequate septic systems and stormwater. With the area’s abundant wildlife, he noted that fecal bacteria will never be eliminated from the water but it can be reduced to a point where recreational use is permissible.
Evans explained that unsafe bacteria levels can result in both acute and chronic health issues including diarrhea, arthritis and ulcers.
In addition to unsafe bacterial levels, Evans noted that Mountain Run also has “benthic health” issues affecting the “invertebrate life that’s the base of the aquatic food pyramid.” This benthic life, he said, is most likely being negatively impacted by the presence of excess sediments and nutrients in the water.
“The diversity of this benthic life community is so important for all the large organisms,” Evans said.
Mountain Run is also polluted with polychlorinated biphenyls, which are industrial wastes or chemicals, but those issues will not be addressed by the VDEQ until next year.
Other areas with unsafe bacteria levels include the lower section of Hazel River, a stretch of Indian Run and the entirety of Muddy Run.
Evans explained that the bacteria levels can be reduced through different agricultural, residential and stormwater control measures.
Agriculturally, possible safety measures include livestock exclusion fencing, house farm grazing systems and manure composting, hardened crossings, water troughs, permanent vegetative covers, reforestation and rotational grazing.
Potential residential control measures include septic system pump-outs, conventional septic system replacements, septic system repairs and alternative on-site sewage disposals systems.
Ways to prevent stormwater runoff include vegetated buffers, bioretention gardens and infiltration trenches.
Another significant contributor to bacteria levels is pet waste, which can be curbed via the installation of pet waste baggage stations or composters in residential areas.
The primary purpose of the virtual meeting was for VDEQ officials to give a presentation regarding bacteria levels in the watershed. Citizens can become more engaged in the process by joining agricultural and residential workgroups.
The virtual meeting kicked off a 30-day public comment period, which will lead into a 6-8 month period that will include workgroup meetings during which an implementation plan will be drafted and eventually submitted to the Environmental Protection Agency for approval.
If the EPA approves the plan, the area will be eligible to receive cost-sharing grants to help fund the implementation of control measures.