BRYAN CLARK Spirit Staff
CHARLES TOWN – A local volunteer coalition is seeking $15,000 in county funding for water monitoring on Blue Ridge streams and on the Shenandoah River. They hope the hard data produced by the monitoring program will allow for a real assessment of the area’s impact on the Chesapeake Bay Watershed.
The $15,000 from the county budget for the Blue Ridge Watershed Coalition would complement a $10,000 Community Participation Grant they obtained with the aid of Senator John Unger.
$10,800 would go toward monitoring six streams on the Blue Ridge as well as three locations on the Shenandoah, $13,550 would pay for equipment for monitoring sediment runoff in five Blue Ridge streams during peak water flows, and $650 would be used to pay for training Coalition volunteers to collect water samples.
“We’re proposing (to monitor) the six mountain streams … and, in addition, three sites on the Shenandoah itself. We believe it is important to know what quality of water is coming into West Virginia and then what quality is leaving at Harpers Ferry,” said John Maxey, a member of the Blue Ridge Watershed Coalition.
Maxey said gaining this concrete data on water pollution will be vital in efforts to ensure the county is treated fairly as Chesapeake Bay Initiative regulations take shape.
“Without real data, (the EPA is) relying on a computer model, and that’s all they have. You can’t blame them for relying on it when we’re not providing them anything in terms of real data. We need to have that data for our own protection,” Maxey said.
The EPA currently relies on estimates generated by a computer model, because there is virtually no water quality monitoring done in the county, argued Ronda Lehman.
“(Monitoring) stops at Jefferson County. It comes right to the edge of Berryville, and then it stops,” Lehman said. “If we’re proactive about this, we negate the need for the EPA to force those heavy mandates that are going to be a real hardship to the farmers in the area and residents on the Blue Ridge with septic tanks. It could get ugly unless we’re proactive about showing them the data and showing them what we’re doing to try to rectify some of the problems.”
County Commissioners complemented the Coalition on the quality of the work they have done so far.
“This, to me, will function as a template for Jefferson County for all watershed groups,” Commissioner Lyn Widmyer said.
“I have felt like a voice in the wilderness for years, saying, ‘The EPA has declared you guilty.’ And that just drives me up a wall. The fact that we are now going to get hard data that we can take back at them and say, ‘you’re wrong’ – if it turns out that way – there is just tremendous benefit to that,” said Commissioner Walt Pellish, arguing that openness of data should be a priority for the Coalition. “If we’re bad, then let’s admit we’re bad. If we’re good then let’s fight like hell to get some of this burden off of us and get absolved of this universal guilt that’s been applied to everybody.”
Lehman said the new monitoring system will be vital for defraying the county’s costs for complying with Chesapeake Bay regulations.
“This gets us on a path to an EPA approved watershed plan. That’s the holy grail,” Lehman said, pointing out that an approved plan will open up substantial federal Clean Water Act grants.
“If we can show that we are making solid progress, and we have hard science and real data to show that we’re making that progress, we can provide some protection to Jefferson County citizens from future (EPA) requirements,” said Maxey.
Maxey said the data from the monitoring system could also help the county target pollution reduction efforts at the real sources of the problem.
“If the data shows that there is a problem, it will show us exactly what the problem is and exactly what the extent of it is so that we can design solutions that target the real cause. The model is just kind of ethereal. It’s not going to give us the fine tuning that we need to address problems that we have – if we in fact have them. We’ve got to have the data,” Maxey said.
The new equipment designed to monitor sediment runoff levels on the Blue Ridge during heavy rains will fill a significant hole in the current understanding of the Mountain’s contribution to pollution in the Shenandoah, he said.
“Sediment comes into the water when it rains, and the sediment that washes into that water is mostly washing in in the first 15 to 20 minutes after the rain starts,” Maxey said, pointing out that prior monitoring efforts failed to measure runoff during the most important times.
The new monitoring system will sample stream water every 15 seconds. The wealth of data will be retrieved on a monthly basis and be posted on a website where it will be visible to the public.
“We can correlate that back to rain events and see exactly what’s happening with sediment at different locations in different streams,” said Maxey. This will allow the Coalition to make a case to the Division of Highways and EPA that grants for improvements would contribute toward Chesapeake cleanup efforts.
“It is our view that sediment coming off the Blue Ridge might possibly be coming from some of the 70 miles of gravel roads without correct stormwater management. If we can use scientific data that indicates that that is the case, then we can use that data to help obtain grant funding,” Maxey said. “Those roads are part of what is known as the ‘orphan roads’ program in West Virginia, which means the Division of Highways is prohibited from making any improvements – including improvements to stormwater management. If we can get outside grant funding from the federal government and people that are concerned about contamination of the Chesapeake Bay for the engineering work, we hope to get the Division of Highways to partner with us on making some of the improvements.”
These improvements could include the installation of culverts, detention ponds and even reservoirs, said Maxey.