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Quick and Dirty Fact Sheet on Rivers

Virginia has nine major river basins each with unique natural, recreational, commercial and cultural resources.

Along the banks of the wide, placid James River English colonists settled in the early 1600s, establishing Tidewater Virginia as the "Cradle of the Republic." The James and her sister Chesapeake Bay tributaries -- the York, Rappahannock and Potomac rivers -- drain nearly two-thirds of Virginia's land mass.

The Chesapeake Bay itself remains one of the country's most valuable natural treasures, providing millions of pounds of seafood, world-class commercial and military ports, outstanding recreational opportunities and critical estuarine habitat for hundreds of plant and animal species.

The Commonwealth's western rivers -- the ancient New River and the Tennessee-Big Sandy system, course through rugged mountain valleys where generations of Virginia farmers, miners, trout fishermen and white-water rafters have found happiness. And the Roanoke and Chowan rivers flow through Virginia's Southside, sustaining peanut and tobacco farms, textile industries and lakeside vacation homes.

Practically everything we do in our day-to-day lives has an impact on water quality. Whenever we take a shower, wash the dishes or flush a toilet, the waste water likely goes to a sewage treatment plant discharging to a local river. Power plants that supply our electricity and the factories that supply our goods, all use huge quantities of water. Mining, forestry, construction and other soil-disturbing activities can lead to runoff of sediment. Farming can add nutrients and pesticides to our lakes and streams.

Protecting these valuable water resources is the responsibility of all Virginians, including state government. Virginia was among the first states in the nation to embrace this responsibility and in 1946 enacted the Virginia Water Control Law to combat water pollution. By doing so, the Commonwealth preceded by Two years later, Congress adopted the Federal Water Pollution Control Act.

Much progress has been made over the past half century. Today the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) is charged with protecting the environment of Virginia to promote the health and well-being of the citizens of the Commonwealth. DEQ maintains a network of more than 1,100 monitoring stations that regularly sample and analyze streams, rivers, lakes and bays across the state. DEQ monitors more than 28,000 river miles, the highest mileage total of any state in the nation.

The agency also regularly surveys stream life -- the fish and aquatic insects (macroinvertebrates) living in Virginia waters -- and takes samples of bottom sediments and fish tissues to see if any toxic chemicals are accumulating. Together with data from other state agencies and active volunteer citizen monitoring groups, DEQ has one of the most comprehensive computer data bases of water quality information in the country.

DEQ has issued more than 3,000 discharge permits to businesses, municipalities and individual homeowners. These permits set pollution limits that specify how clean the waste water must be before it is discharged into a stream or river. The majority of these permit holders consistently meet their permit limits, ensuring that users downstream receive the water in good condition and that the environment is protected.

In addition, Virginia has spent nearly half a billion dollars over the past decade to build or upgrade local sewage treatment plants across the state. The result has been a dramatic reduction in the amount of raw or partially treated sewage going into state waters.

Water quality is improving. The most recent statewide water quality assessment (April 1996) showed that most Virginia waterways -- 93.7 percent of all streams monitored -- are in good shape, meeting or exceeding water quality standards. Bald eagles, ospreys and pelicans have returned to fish Virginia waters in astounding numbers.

Challenges remain, however. The most serious threat to water quality in Virginia today is "nonpoint source" pollution -- storm runoff from farms, streets, parking lots, lawns, construction sites and other developed land uses. The April 1996 assessment found that the vast majority (83 percent) of water pollution problems in the Commonwealth are caused by nonpoint sources. Runoff can send excess fertilizers, manure, toxic chemicals, pathogens and sediments into our rivers and streams unless we take protective measures to "lighten our footsteps" upon the land. Farmers, foresters and contractors can use sediment and erosion control measures; localities can develop storm water controls and steer development away from sensitive natural areas; and homeowners can reduce paved surfaces and use of lawn fertilizers and pesticides.

DEQ and other state agencies are working with local governments, industries, volunteer groups and ordinary citizens to address these and other water pollution issues.

Note about the Chesapeake Bay

Most of Virginia’s rivers flow to the Chesapeake Bay. One of the most intense environmental management efforts is directed at the Chesapeake Bay, where an excess of nutrients from runoff, sewage treatment plants and air pollution has become one of the Bay's most serious environmental threats. Excess nutrients "over fertilize" the Bay, causing algae blooms that block sunlight needed by important underwater grasses. These grasses provide food and habitat for many Bay species. Later when the algae die and decompose, they consume oxygen needed by fish, crabs and other aquatic life.

Virginia has joined Maryland, Pennsylvania, the District of Columbia and the federal government in pledging to reduce nutrients Baywide by 40 percent by the year 2000. Strategies to protect Virginia's rivers, the tributaries to the Chesapeake Bay, are being developed and implemented with the active involvement of local citizens in the Bay watershed.

As with all environmental problems, restoring the Chesapeake Bay requires the work of all of us. But the Bay and Virginia's other natural resources are dynamic and resilient -- they have the capacity to restore themselves if we work cooperatively and intelligently to assist them. For example, in the Chesapeake Bay, striped bass have made a dramatic comeback, underwater grasses have increased 60 percent since 1984, and phosphorus levels have been reduced 19 percent since 1985. The amount of toxic chemicals released by industry in the Bay watershed has declined 55 percent since 1988. DEQ and other Natural Resource agencies -- the Chesapeake Bay Local Assistance Department, Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, Department of Conservation and Recreation and Virginia Marine Resources Commission -- are working together to protect wetlands and shorelines, improve water quality and restore fisheries.

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To teach about an issue, you need to know the basic facts about it. Quick and Dirty Fact Sheets were created by the Environmental Education Fellow Project to give teachers a quick background on waste management issues. They are written to give a basic understanding of the issue and do not include all information available on the topic. For in depth study of one of these issues, we suggest you check out the many materials available at your local library or contact the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality at (804) 698-4442.

Updated 6/11/2001