Group: Nitrate levels in streams on rise

High nitrates could make water in some areas undrinkable

By Katie Demeria

BERRYVILLE — The Friends of the Shenandoah River have monitored the river and its streams since 1989. And they have some startling results that may have a direct impact on local residents.

By studying springs in some of the valley’s karst areas, the group has concluded that the high nitrate content in low-flow streams largely comes from groundwater rather than runoff from the land.

The group has also highlighted one important point: nitrate levels are rising, and if they do not stop, water in some areas could become undrinkable.

Wayne Webb, a member of Friends of the Shenandoah River, has been a vital part of the study. His research indicates some streams may go over the United States Environmental Protection Agency’s drinking water limit of 10 mg/L of nitrate by 2084, such as in Wheat Spring in Clarke County.

“Some are very close, some are very far away, but most of them are within the 21st century,” Webb said of the years in which levels will become too high.

The next closest year in which nitrate levels will increase past the EPA’s regulations is 2091 for Dog Run, 2147 for Lewis Run, and 2187 for Chapel Run. Others are not expected to rise very high until much later, such as 2314 for Spout Run and 2456 for Page Brook, according to the research.

“It’s unquestionable that the nitrogen concentrations are increasing,” Webb said.

And Shenandoah Riverkeeper Jeff Kelble, who is aware of the problem and continues to push for regulations that will help, pointed out that even getting close to the 10 mg/L limit is concerning.

Pollution in the water is not a new problem, and nitrogen is not the only issue. But if the levels continue to rise at the current rate it could present major health concerns.

Karen Andersen, laboratory director with Friends of the Shenandoah River, said blue baby syndrome, or methemoglobinemia, is oftentimes a concern with nitrate contamination in groundwater, as are miscarriages.

Most of the research, president of the Friends of the Shenandoah River George Ohrstrom said, took place in Clarke County, as the group does not currently have the funds to spread out to other localities.

But, Webb added, because karst makes up a significant portion of the Shenandoah River’s watershed — 41 percent — it is highly likely that similar results would be found elsewhere.

Karst, Webb explained, is a limestone geology consisting of porous rocks. When it rains in those areas, water goes into the ground and does not run off.

Kelble said that oftentimes when these issues are brought up, they are shelved or ignored because the average individual does not think it will impact them. His team, he said, especially when working with other groups like Friends of the Shenandoah River, tries to build up enough momentum to move regulations forward.

He pointed out that two factors impact groundwater pollution: septic systems and the use of fertilizers on the land. Webb added that the atmosphere contributes a minor amount, and legumes planted on the land, like alfalfa, also contribute some, but not nearly as much as commercial fertilizers.

“This is a big problem,” Ohrstrom said. “And if it’s not addressed in the next 20 years, it’s going to become a very serious problem.”

Ohrstrom and other members of Friends of the Shenandoah River are trying to raise awareness of the issue and educate residents about why they should be concerned.

“We don’t know what the answers are, and we don’t know how to solve the problem, but it will be a problem for our children,” Ohrstrom said. “And we’d like to be a leader in starting a dialogue.”

Ohrstrom said the organization is in need of support and anyone interested in becoming involved can visit their website at

Contact staff writer Katie Demeria at 540-465-5137 ext. 155, or

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