The Shenandoah River in Virginia flows through 100 mile long forks — the North Fork and the South Fork — as well as a mainstem before emptying into the Potomac River at Harper’s Ferry. The Potomac then flows past the nation’s Capital into the Chesapeake Bay. This iconic river, memorialized in both song and movie, is a magnet to outdoor enthusiasts looking to launch boats, fish from its shores, and track birds along its banks. The river also provides an idyllic backdrop to local industry and agriculture operations.
Tasked with watching over the expansive waterway is the Shenandoah Riverkeeper (SRK), Mark Frondorf. Mark has created an impressive, cross-industry network of stakeholders that work together using sound science and smart citizen science tools to protect the water quality of this river and its watershed for current and future generations. Of significant importance has been the need to get the state of Virginia to recognize impaired conditions and take action to both notify the public and ameliorate harmful situations.
Harmful Algal Blooms in the Shenandoah
The Shenandoah Riverkeeper has been working on algal issues since 2004–2005, before the Shenandoah Riverkeeper Organization even existed. In 2004–05 there was a major fish kill that decimates the bass and sunfish populations. Following the catastrophic fish kill event, then Governor of Virginia, Mark Warner, stood up a Shenandoah River Fish Kill Task Force to determine if harmful algae blooms played a role. Despite never finding a smoking gun, algae remained a clear suspect worth further observation and sleuthing. Qualitative and observational evidence made it appear that hypoxia, or an absence of oxygen in the water, played a role in creating the fish kills. A common cause of hypoxia is the proliferation of algae in the water — an event commonly referred to as a harmful algal bloom.
After the initial events, the Riverkeeper took the lead to continue collecting evidence on water quality impairments, including launching a more serious research investigation into the presence and impact of HABs along the Shenandoah.
Continued Data Collection to Inform Water Quality
Between 2010 and 2016, the Riverkeeper started to actively try to get the North fork, South fork, and mainstem of the Shenandoah put on the US EPA’s impaired waters list for excessive algae or nutrient overload. The data collected formed the basis to try to get regulatory action started. For this goal, the data collected was analyzed and presented to the state regulatory authorities in an effort to get the River listed as impaired. Yet each time SRK went through the cycle and iteration, the regulatory authorities denied their impairment designation request.
The first time, Virginia Department of Environmental Quality (VA DEQ) responded that the Commonwealth has no numeric nutrient limits for free flowing streams so they had nothing to judge the issue by and therefore could not designate the river as impaired. Under the federal Clean Water Act, standards can be determined by quantitative data or narratives. So during the next iteration, SRK submitted more than 200 letters on behalf of fishing guides, anglers, BNB Owners, Hikers, Birders, etc. that detailed how their use of the river and surrounding watershed was impaired due to the heavy algal blooms. In the second attempt, DEQ came back and said narrative standards are too subjective and hard to set standards by, so they would be unable to respond.
As the next strategy to employ, in 2017, Shenandoah River keeper sued the EPA for accepting the impaired waters list without the Shenandoah River on it. SRK lost their case in court and again through appeals. Even though SRK lost, the effort had impactful results. It compelled VADEQ to stand up the Shenandoah Algae methodology study.
On a parallel track to all of this monitoring, SRK received a grant from Chesapeake Trust to start developing a vision and road map to protect the Shenandoah watershed for future generations. SRK brought in lots of stakeholder community groups: including fishing guides, tourism bureaus, state and local governments, and agricultural communities to look collectively at what each of these groups can do to preserve and protect the watershed. That came out in early winter 2020. From those conversations, the Shenandoah Watershed Compact was created.
The Shenandoah Watershed Compact puts into writing the vision and goals for the multi-stakeholder effort and charts a multiple-strategy course to reach the goals. It set the framework and vision for ensuring clean and plentiful drinking water while maintaining a thriving economy in the Shenandoah River Watershed.
To transform the document from planning into tangible action, SRK began leading multiple activities. And immediately, the effort of the Compact began paying off. Thanks to language and efforts derived from the workshop, VA HB 1422 was passed that called for all cattle to be removed from Virginia’s perennial rivers and streams by 2025. While work was being done at the legislative level, the leaders of this effort recognized the need to engage all stakeholders with meaningful opportunities to contribute to monitoring the health of the watershed and collecting data that could move the needle to more accurate designations, responses, and protections.
SRK and The Downstream Project created the Respect the Shenandoah Campaign. This campaign intends to expand the eyes and ears of the community and engage in addressing the harmful algal blooms disrupting daily lives and water quality. Thanks to participation of community members, this Campaign helped identify algal issues up and down the watershed.
Volunteer Driven Visual Monitoring Sparks State Action
In the fall of 2020, David Paylor, the director of VA DEQ announced that they would construct numeric nutrient limits for the Shenandoah River. Initially that was supposed to come out by year end 2020. Eventually, the thresholds were folded into Virginia’s existing Triennial Review of Water Quality Standards. The review determined that the DEQ would use chlorophyll A as the nutrient metric and would focus on filamentous algae only for its impact on recreational impairment: fishing, canoeing, paddling, and tubing.
SRK felt this declaration achieved a critical first step but failed to satisfy the goals of the Compact. As such, they continued to submit algal bloom complaints to both VADEQ and VA Department of Health and encourage their stakeholders and volunteers to continue to act as the eye and ears of the watershed.
Continued Documentation of Algal Bloom Presence Along the River leads to first Health Advisory
Fast forward to summer 2021, the river has been in near drought conditions from the end of June through Mid-August. During this period, matted algal blooms smothered portions of the river.
Their presence persisted until late August when Hurricane Ida blew through the region. SRK submitted complaints throughout July documenting the extent of the blooms. In response, VA Department of Health issued the first ever health advisory on the river. The advisory caught a lot of attention and even got picked up by journalism outlets including WHSV3, CBS19 News, Bay Journal, and Winchester Star,.
Summer of 2021 did not mark the the first time that there was a HAB along the Shenandoah River. Rather, it was just the first time that the Commonwealth issued an advisory. The linchpin to getting this advisory issued was the use of Water Reporter and the submission of complaints by community members throughout the summer drought. The use of Water Reporter compelled DEQ and DOH to take a serious look at it. In fact, these agencies bent over backward to look into and investigate this issue. For example, their footprint of research began as a 10-mile segment and as they went upstream into the North Fork of the Shendandoah and realized that the algal mats went further up river. Unfortunately, no financial resources were allocated to conduct the monitoring and analysis necessary to fully comprehend the extent of the problem. So both DEQ and DOH were jumping through hoops to find the requiste funds. These agencies truly were trying to be good stewards but lacked the financial resources to see through their efforts to address this long term.
Water Reporter used to engage volunteers and collect reliable monitoring data
The linchpin to all of this work was the systematic complaints of algal bloom observances through Water Reporter.
To learn more about the use of the Shenandoah Watershed Compact to build a harmful algal bloom monitoring network and the Water Reporter platform, watch the Internet of Water’s P2P Webinar on Respect the Shenandoah.