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Herschel Finch: Healthy rivers are vital to all of us

As the weather warms, more and more people will be getting out on their local river or lake to fish, float or paddle, including our own Shenandoah River.

Almost every day this summer people from all over the country, and from all over the world, will go out on the river. They usually come off the river with a big smile, and a glow on their face. Making that connection with the river, and that connection with the outdoors, is a powerful thing. It is something people may remember for the rest of their lives. Being on the river is great fun, of course, but it is also good for you. Research tells us outdoor activity makes people healthier, happier, less stressed and more creative.

Recreation on the river, whether canoeing, kayaking, fishing, or just sight-seeing, is also a powerful driver of our economy here, bringing millions of dollars every year into communities and small businesses in the valley.

Clean water is essential to that success, and the Shenandoah River remains beautiful and diverse considering the abuse it has sustained. In the past, clear-cutting of the valley’s forests more than a century ago, and zinc, PCBs and mercury pollution from industrial facilities more recently, were the greatest threats to the river’s health.

Today, excess nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorus from farms upstream feed algae blooms and harm fish in the river. A growing concern is E. coli bacteria from livestock manure that can make the waters unhealthy for people, our pets and even the livestock themselves. These threats have an impact on the river, and on the businesses and communities that depend on the river.

Up and down the valley, communities rely on the Shenandoah and its tributaries for their drinking water, and they must spend millions to make the water safe for us to drink. Essentially, polluted water forces a tax on local municipalities in the form of the money required to clean that water for their citizen’s use.

We know how to address these threats, and fortunately the solutions are available and affordable. Wider use of improved nutrient management plans on farms. Grass buffer strips planted along streams to filter runoff from fields and keep cattle (and their manure) out of the river. Better planning for careful management and use of the manure generated by large cattle, chicken, and turkey operations.

Farm Bill conservation programs provide over $40 million a year to help Virginia farmers adopt those kinds of conservation measures and be better stewards of the land and water. The federal government and State of Virginia have other resources available that can also help landowners better manage runoff from their land. Farms and livestock operations are the largest sources of water pollution in the Shenandoah, but they aren’t the only source. All of us can do a better job by reducing the fertilizer and other chemicals used on our lawns, picking up after our pets, and keeping oil and anti-freeze in our vehicles and out of our rivers. Communities can better manage runoff from golf courses, parking lots and public areas.

Outdoor season is here. For all of us, it is an opportunity to get out on the river and into the Great Outdoors. It is also an opportunity for all of us to do more to ensure that current and future generations can enjoy cleaner water and a healthier river.

Come join us in the effort for a cleaner river and healthier future.

Herschel Finch, of Front Royal,  loves to kayak, fish, and volunteers with the Shenandoah Riverkeeper. He is conservation chairman for the Potomac River Smallmouth Club and the Izaak Walton League of America.