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Group says algae impairs Shenandoah

By Alex Bridges -- abridges@nvdaily.com

BOYCE -- The thick masses of green algae floating on the Shenandoah River may not pose a health risk, but the blooms often drive away those wanting to use the waterway.

But Shenandoah Riverkeeper Jeff Kelble said Friday the excessive amount of algae blooms in recent years does indicate the waterway faces a dilemma -- too much nutrient runoff likely from farms and other sources.

Shenandoah Riverkeeper in Boyce on Friday filed dozens of complaints with the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality requesting the agency designate the waterway impaired as a result of excessive algae blooms.

The state has not designated the entire Shenandoah River as impaired, according to Kelble.

"The designation is the first step in a relatively lengthy process and I wish that the river had been designated years ago and we had started the process years ago," Kelble said.

The river contains many of the chemical compounds which fuel algae growth, such as nitrogen and phosphorous, according to Kelble. Algae appears to grow most often in the winter and summer months, he noted.

"We just have an abundance of it and whenever conditions are right it blooms," Kelble said. "We're sitting on the river right now down in West Virginia and you can see the algae bloom going around in it."

However, Kelble noted the mass he saw appeared normal for the river. In recent years Kelble said he has seen much larger blooms.

Algae blooms which occur year-round along the river violate the state's nuisance standard for aquatic life and interfere with the public's recreational use of the river, according to a press release issued by the organization Friday.

Kelble noted that Shenandoah Riverkeeper, a program of Potomac Riverkeeper Inc., issued the release Friday because the organization had filed documents supporting its request that the state designate the waterway impaired.

Riverkeeper collected more than 80 complaint letters which the organization submitted Friday along with official comments on Virginia's draft of the Water Quality Assessment Integrated Report for 2012. Letters include information about the locations and approximate dates of the "nuisance algae" as observed by recreational users of the river as well as landowners, the release states.

The DEQ started a 30-day period for people to comment on the state's impaired waters list.

"I've been arguing for years that the algae diminishes people's enjoyment of the river, particularly when it's really blooming badly," Kelble said. "People won't swim in it when it's murky green. Some of the algae floats in clumps and smells really bad. People think it's sewage but it's algae."

This "nuisance algae" impacts the use of the river, according to Kelble.

If the DEQ agrees to list the Shenandoah River as impaired the agency would then be compelled to study the algae, determine why the blooms appear and then find the sources which cause the growths, Kelble explained. The agency then could develop a plan to address the sources, he added.

But designation as impaired shouldn't scare off users of the waterway.

"It's not designed to tell people not to come," Kelble said. "We don't consider them dangerous to people. It's not like it's a high level of bacteria where people are going to get sick.

"But a lot of people avoid the river during algae blooms," Kelble added, noting that many people stayed away from the Shenandoah when algae covered much of the water at peak times last year. "It's something that needs to be addressed by the state and I think the state's been a little slow to act."

Kelble recalled taking up the same effort a few years ago to seek the river's designation as impaired. He submitted similar documentation to state DEQ officials and presented photos of algae blooms. But officials responded by saying they could not measure how much of the river's use was lost as a result of the algae, Kelble said.

"My response back was 'just because you haven't developed a way to determine how much of people's loss of use, you don't have a numeric criteria, you can't take a test tube and take a scoop of the water and determine whether it's impaired doesn't mean you're not obligated to list it if it's got all these problems,'" Kelble said.

The Environmental Law and Conservation Clinic at the University Virginia School of Law assisted the Shenandoah Riverkeeper in preparing the comments as sent to the DEQ.

At this time three weeks ago, Kelble sought input from landowners and users of the river and asked them if they could write comments regarding their concerns about algae and how it affects their use of the Shenandoah. But Kelble also asked responders to note when and where they observed algae blooms.

Kelble noted that he received letters recounting stories such as "people showing up with their families and the river smelled really bad, the kids didn't want to go in and they were packing up their camp and going somewhere else."

"That's the kind of stuff I'd like to see not happen anymore," Kelble said.

Visit http://potomacriverkeeper.org/updates/press-release-excessive-algae-blooms for more information.


The White House should be notified.

President Obama has suggested using algae to lower gas prices.

This would solve our problems.

Lets let Mr. Vincente know. He wants to cut taxes on cars and food. Maybe this will help.

If the algae doesn't affect the river then why bother with it. Perhaps it is good for the river. And since the river bank has widened a bit perhaps the shallower water, being warmer helps the algae to grow. Perhaps it's not extra stuff in the water. Once the government gets involved (in a natural event) I don't wonder if they will then choose to shut down parts of the river for study, thus hurting the object of this article...to let people use it more.
If it's not dangerous then let it be. Perhaps if we humans quit trying to clean up nature (the blooms are a natural occurance) for OUR use it would get better. Just my thoughts.

Kim and All,
Please dont' misunderstand. The algae is terrible for the river, and all the river's inhabitants. It also interferes with our rigthful use of the river.

I didn't want to go on record discouraging people from using the river, quite the opposite. The Shenandoah is one of the most beautiful rivers in the world and we should be proud of it. But it's hard to be proud when you show up to the river for a nice day on the water or by the banks, and the algae is blooming.

Very small amounts of algae are natural and acceptable. But we're talking aobut times when there is so much algae that it kills back the native plants in the river, and interferes with our use.

Actually Kim, this is something I mentioned to you in one of our back and forths a year or two ago... Excessive algae blooms are part of a process called "Eutrophication" which, if left unchecked, can destroy aquatic life in a body of water (In this case the Shenandoah River).

Here's a good explaination that I found online:

[i]"Eutrophication generally promotes excessive plant growth and decay, favouring simple algae and plankton over other more complicated plants, and causes a severe reduction in water quality.

Phosphorus is a necessary nutrient for plants to live, and is the limiting factor for plant growth in many freshwater ecosystems. The addition of phosphorus increases algal growth. These algae assimilate the other necessary nutrients needed for plants and animals. When algae die they sink to the bottom where they are decomposed and the nutrients contained in organic matter are converted into inorganic form by bacteria.

The decomposition process uses oxygen and deprives the deeper waters of oxygen which can kill fish and other organisms. Also the necessary nutrients are all at the bottom of the aquatic ecosystem and if they are not brought up closer to the surface, where there is more available light allowing for photosynthesis for aquatic plants, a serious strain is placed on algae populations.

Enhanced growth of aquatic vegetation or phytoplankton and algal blooms disrupts normal functioning of the ecosystem, causing a variety of problems such as a lack of oxygen needed for fish and shellfish to survive. The water becomes cloudy, typically coloured a shade of green, yellow, brown, or red. Eutrophication also decreases the value of rivers, lakes, and estuaries for recreation, fishing, hunting, and aesthetic enjoyment.

Health problems can occur where eutrophic conditions interfere with drinking water treatment."[/i]

So it isn't just a matter of, "What is a little extra plant growth gonna do? I don't see a problem here.". This can develop into a major problem if it isn't addressed...

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