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Riverkeeper fighting to fix Shenandoah's algae problems

Jeff Kelble, Shenandoah Riverkeeper, pulls algae blooms from the North Fork of the Shenandoah River near Strasburg in july 2010. Submitted file photo by Alan Lehman

By Sally Voth

It may be spring, but there's one organism Shenandoah Riverkeeper Jeff Kelble doesn't want to see in full bloom -- algae. And, he's willing to go to court to check it.

"We [have] got this algae problem in the Shenandoah," Kelble said Tuesday in a phone interview. "They actually develop to be organized communities. It can be bank to bank for hundreds of miles. It can smell."

A blue-green algae puts off a particular odor.

"They smell like rotten broccoli, rotten cabbage," Kelble said. "A lot of people think it's sewage."

The aroma isn't the only issue created by the algae.

"It makes the bottom slippery," Kelble said. "We have it every year to a certain degree, and some years it's really terrible. It affects people's desire to use the river. It affects their enjoyment when they're there. In my opinion, it renders it virtually unusable some times."

Plus, it is harmful to the ecosystem, the riverkeeper said.

"It actually hinders the growth of the native grasses," Kelble said. "They grow in these long, flowing groups."

There was no native grass in the North Fork of the Shenandoah River last year because of algae, he said. It also caused fish to abandon large swathes of the river.

"It really begins to affect the ecosystem," Kelble said.

He said he received numerous complaints from river users last summer.

An overload of nutrients -- nitrogen and phosphorous -- promotes algae proliferation, according to Kelble. Those come from fertilizer, often in the form of manure, and livestock getting into waterways, he said.

"We have a mountain-valley river system that's very fertilized," Kelble said.

Kelble attempted to get the Shenandoah River added to the state's impaired waterways list in 2010. Kelble said he was told the Department of Environmental Quality recognized there was algae in the river, but hadn't developed a system to evaluate its effects on people's use of the river, so it was kept off the list.

"I found that a very frustrating answer," Kelble said.

He encouraged recreational river users to write letters to the state describing how algae was affecting their usage.

The response from DEQ was similar to the 2010 one.

"Algae itself is not a pollutant to be controlled within the meaning of the General Criteria, whereas the presence of nutrients, depending on their source and impacts, may be," documents from DEQ state. "However, at this time DEQ has no reliable methodology for assessing what may or may not be a "nuisance" nor has it reliable data demonstrating in what amounts and under what conditions nutrients might cause such a "nuisance" and
therefore prompt a listing threshold."

Kelble said the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency will have the final say in approving the DEQ impaired waters list. He said he's encouraging the EPA to not approve it since the Shenandoah River isn't on the list.

He plans to appeal in federal court any decision to keep the river off the list.

"It's my last-ditch effort," he said. "If I have to appeal it, it means I've been unable to get Virginia to do what's right and what's required by law."

Waterways on the impaired list get placed into a queue and plans are made for improving their quality.

Kelble stressed the Shenandoah River is still safe for fishers, boaters, swimmers and other recreational users.

"I'm not discouraging people's use of the river," he said. "I'm trying to encourage people's use of the river and I want it clean when they get there. It doesn't appear to be any sort of health issue."

Contact staff writer Sally Voth at 540-465-5137 ext. 164, or svoth@nvdaily.com


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