Local group, riverkeeper begin algae monitoring

By Katie Demeria

Local groups are teaming up with the Shenandoah riverkeeper to continue a four-year fight over algae.

Riverkeeper Jeff Kelble and his team have been trying to get the Commonwealth of Virginia to recognize the Shenandoah River as impaired since 2010. Without the impairment status, nothing can be done about the high levels of algae found there.

Local environmental group Friends of the North Fork of the Shenandoah River is gathering volunteers to start a monitoring team that will collect samples of algae and send them to the Interstate Commission of the Potomac River Basin.

The Interstate Commission’s work is funded by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The EPA became involved in the issue when Kelble went to the agency in hopes that it would list the river as impaired when Virginia would not.

Virginia says it cannot give the river impairment status because the commonwealth does not have a standard of algae quality, according to Kelble.

John Holmes, chairman of the Science Committee for the Friends of the North Fork, has taken the initiative in putting together the monitoring team.

“Ten years ago, when you had something growing in the river in the summer, when it was hot and the river was slow, it was normally grass,” he said. “Since then, for some reason, the algae has become more competitive.”

“And if we go a substantial period in the summer without rain … ugly collections of algae form in the river that can smell bad or make it impossible to fish,” Holmes continued.

When the commonwealth sent its annual list of impaired waterways to the EPA, Kelble went to the EPA because the Shenandoah was not on the list.

Virginia has been working for the past decade to create a standard of algae quality, Kelble said.

“I got frustrated with that process,” he said. “So we took a legal position to say they were required to list it as impaired. We sent maybe over 1,000 images to the EPA of hundreds of miles of rivers with just tremendous algae blooms.”

Now, though, the EPA has become similarly resistant to taking action — it deferred a decision on the Shenandoah in 2012.

Kelble and his team, along with help from the Friends of the North Fork, are working to produce enough samples of algae to set a standard — and hoping that either the EPA or Virginia accepts that standard and lists the river as impaired soon.

According to Holmes, this type of work is especially important because the river could be seriously impacting the health of the river.

The algae may be collecting along the bottom of the river and choking out certain larvae and invertebrates that live in those areas, as well as the native grasses, Holmes said.

“And there are certain kinds of algae that release toxins,” he added. “Those have caused fish kills or people to feel ill. We don’t know whether the population of algae that we have generates those toxins or not.”

Those interested in volunteering to help monitor activities within the river can go to www.fnfsr.org.

Contact staff writer Katie Demeria at 540-465-5137 ext. 155, or kdemeria@nvdaily.com