Commentary: Celebrate Earth Day by enjoying the Shenandoah River

Mark Frondorf

Mark Frondorf

Today, our 46th Earth Day, we celebrate the rich network of natural resources we depend on and renew our commitment to its protection. Shenandoah Valley’s very own, President Woodrow Wilson, recognized the importance of this half a century before the first Earth Day by creating the National Park Service to conserve the beauty of the land and water for future generations.

A local benefit of his foresight is the Shenandoah National Park, headwaters for a portion of the Shenandoah River that drains clean water to the river through pristine streams. But that can’t be the only protection we offer our river.

The Shenandoah unites us. It’s woven through our past and will weave through our future. We all love and are quite proud of our river. But she faces four major environmental challenges – fracking, pipeline routes, fish kills, and the reluctance of our own Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) to address the excessive amounts of algae. Now is the right time to reflect upon the health of our river and to ask ourselves how we are honoring President Wilson’s legacy of stewardship.

While no fracking currently takes place in the region, it is important that we remain mindful of its possibility because it poses a potential threat to our groundwater. While industry assures us fracking is safe, it fights to keep its activities from being regulated by the Safe Drinking Water Act. It blocks all efforts to allow before and after testing of groundwater and then insists that there are no worries despite EPA studies that found fracking has contaminated drinking water in hundreds of wells. We can’t afford to take the fracking industry’s word; we need a transparent, science-driven process in place that protects our water.

Should no fracking ever take place in our region, we are still faced with our second environmental challenge – industry getting fracked gas to the international market. In order to maximize fracking profits, Dominion Resources and its partner companies have proposed building a pipeline through portions of Virginia and West Virginia.  This would disrupt some of the most ecologically sensitive areas in the Eastern United States, including portions of the George Washington National Forest that feed the Shenandoah River tributaries.

So take a moment today and think about what it would be like to not have the full use and enjoyment of the river. Next week, when many of us are attending the 89th Shenandoah Apple Blossom Festival, imagine not having these shared memories with our families and loved ones that revolve around the role our river plays in our lives.

The river’s third environmental challenge is that since 2005, it has experienced significant periodic fish kills. These kills are the modern day equivalent of the canary in the coal mine. The kills are telling us that our river is not as healthy as it could be.

Our own DEQ is contributing to the fourth challenge. Anybody who fishes, paddles or walks along the shores of the Shenandoah recognizes that our good grasses, our subaquatic vegetation, is disappearing – and that in its place – thick, heavy, algae is blanketing the river bottom, as a result of the heavy nutrient load entering our river, primarily but not exclusively, from agricultural activity.

Some algae with its long, flowing, mermaid-like hair, can make recreational activities such as swimming, paddling or fishing challenging. Other kinds of algae, like blue/green algae, can produce toxins that make the water dangerous for humans and animals and can cause fish kills by consuming all of the available oxygen in that stretch of the river.

DEQ refuses to place the river on its Impaired Waters List due to excessive algae. Doing so would require it to formulate a plan to reduce the algae plaguing our river.

So what can we do? Get out and enjoy the river. Grab a picnic lunch and sit by its side and watch nature unfold. Buy local. Support farms that engage in best management practices that protect both their land and our river. Thank them for their hard work. Tell your political leaders that you love the river and want to see measures adopted that protect it for future generations and that you support renewable energy. And tonight at dinner, raise a glass of water that came from our Shenandoah River, and salute one of our own, President Wilson, for having the vision to protect our land and water for future generations. Let’s hope we can do the same.

Mark Frondorf is the Shenandoah Riverkeeper.

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