Vast Stretches of Rivers Are Polluted, State Says

Dead fish float in the Shenandoah River east of Berryville.
Dead fish float in the Shenandoah River east of Berryville. (By Scott Mason -- Winchester Star Via Associated Press)

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By Sandhya Somashekhar
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 13, 2006

It was a steamy morning, but Todd Lewis and his mother, Bonnie, couldn't resist the urge to lower Todd's boat onto the Potomac River to fish for smallmouth bass at Algonkian Regional Park in Sterling.

As dawn turned to a scorching midday, their enthusiasm yielded to disappointment. Nearly half of the fish they pulled up had burn-like lesions; some were so covered that "you didn't even want to touch them," Todd Lewis, 30, said.

"The water out there is crystal clear, but there's got to be something wrong," said Bonnie Lewis, 55, peering at the still surface of the Potomac as her son hitched the boat to the truck.

There is, in fact, a lot wrong with the state's waterways. The Virginia Department of Environmental Quality identified as polluted about 9,000 miles of rivers and streams in a report last month, alarming a state that prides itself on its natural beauty.

The report summarized the condition of 14,300 miles of rivers and streams, almost one-third of the state's total, which the department studied between 2000 and 2004. It concluded that about 63 percent of the waterways examined were impaired, meaning they failed to meet standards in categories such as swimming, fishing and sustaining aquatic life.

The report also identified more than 100,000 acres of polluted lakes, estuaries and reservoirs.

Officials were quick to point out that many of the bodies of water new to the list, which is updated every two years, were added because of strict new standards for underwater life. The department targeted rivers that were likely to be polluted, so it wasn't a representative sample, they said.

And the news isn't all bad, said Darryl Glover, the state's water quality monitoring and assessment manager.

"In some places, we are actually seeing mild improvements in some things," he said.

Nitrogen levels in the Potomac River have fallen over the past 20 years, for example, helping to reduce damage to plants and animals, Glover said. He credited better waste management.

Still, the good news offered little comfort to environmental groups that say the report should be a wake-up call to the state.

"The bottom line for us is these numbers don't lie," said Ann Jennings, executive director of the Virginia branch of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. "They document the sad reality that Virginia is facing a water pollution crisis."

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