By Alex Bridges -- firstname.lastname@example.org
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.