Virginia waters troubled by multiple harmful algal blooms

State adds to list of impaired waterways, seeks to prevent nutrient runoff

By: - August 30, 2022 12:03 am

Harmful algal blooms color the water a bright green at Lake Anna on Aug 10, 2022. (Courtesy of Kenny Fletcher/Chesapeake Bay Foundation)

Phenomena known as harmful algal blooms have led Virginia to add portions of Lake Anna and six other water bodies to its impaired waters list, an inventory of waterways that don’t meet state environmental standards.

Other listed waterways include Mint Springs Lake in Albemarle County, Aquia Creek east of Stafford, Wilcox Lake south of Petersburg, Woodstock Pond in James City County, Prince Edward Lake near Farmville and an unnamed tributary of the Chickahominy River in the Richmond area.

Listings were made based on harmful algal blooms, or HABs, that occurred in 2019-20. But this summer has also seen Virginia issue numerous advisories for HABs around the state, marking a growing occurrence that a state report released last fall says requires more funding to monitor.

The North Anna and Upper Pamunkey branches, including Terry’s Run, of Lake Anna in the counties of Orange, Louisa and Spotsylvania experienced a HAB this July, according to a notice from the Virginia Department of Health.

Lee Lake, also known as Nottoway Lake, in Nottoway County just north of Blackstone also experienced a bloom at the end of June.

Notices of both HABs advise people to avoid contact with the waters, as some harmful algae, cyanobacteria in particular, can cause a skin rash and gastrointestinal illness, including upset stomach, nausea, vomiting and diarrhea. Children and pets are at greater risk of severe illness from ingesting water. Users should be wary of water that smells, is discolored or where dead fish are present. 

A Virginia Department of Health map tracking the instances of HABs shows that several sections of Lake Anna are still under advisory. Advisories may be lifted following two acceptable water samples, taken 10 days apart, containing cyanobacteria cell concentrations and toxins below safe swimming levels.

Last summer, parts of the Shenandoah River experienced a HAB before it cleared up in the fall.

Algae in the North Fork of the Shenandoah in August 2021. (Matt Kowalski/Chesapeake Bay Foundation)

Not uncommon

HABs have been happening in the commonwealth and around the country for 20 years, with a dramatic increase in magnitude and frequency of advisories issued in recent years, a 47-page report from the Department of Environmental Quality published in September states. 

The report stated DEQ couldn’t point to an exact cause of the blooms, but increased nutrients, particularly nitrogen and phosphorus, can result in abundant growth of algae. The blooms are also characteristic of low water levels and higher temperatures. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, warmer water temperatures due to climate change might favor harmful algal blooms in a number of ways.

A community reporting tool found that Louisa and Spotsylvania counties, where Lake Anna is located, have had over 40 and 30 reports of HABs, respectively, since 2017. Those reports are double the amount of the next most frequently cited problem area, a section of the Shenandoah River in Shenandoah County. The Virginia Beach area had the next highest number of reported HABs. Some 53 localities in total reported the problem.

The state looks at HABs in two forms: those in marine waters around the coast and those in fresh waters throughout the rest of the state.

A HAB Task Force led by the Department of Environmental Quality and VDH was created in 1997 in coordination with the Virginia Marine Resources Commission, Virginia Institute of Marine Science and Old Dominion University to monitor marine HABs. Harmful algal blooms in marine waters could potentially threaten the estimated $500 million annual economic impact of Virginia seafood, DEQ’s September report states.

But no funding exists to monitor freshwater blooms, a job estimated to cost an additional $510,000 in funding, according to the DEQ report.

Funding to protect water quality

The nutrients leading to HABs come from humans through wastewater treatment plant discharges, stormwater runoff, livestock waste, fertilizers used for lawn care and agriculture and acid rain, among others, the September DEQ report stated.

Non-point source pollution management plans from the state can help reduce the flow of those nutrients. So can the creation of a plan called a total maximum daily load, which determines the number of pollutants a body of water can handle and still meet standards set under the federal Clean Water Act. Plans specifically for HABs don’t exist, but others have identified nutrients as causes of impairments. 

Virginia has been under a federally imposed “pollution diet” to clean up the Chesapeake Bay by 2025. As of June this year, 97 projects resulting from TMDLs have been completed to address 607 impairments, according to numbers provided by DEQ spokesperson Irina Carlos.

Virginia saw record funding this year for assistance to farmers to reduce the flow of nutrients from their land into waterways, an investment that could help prevent HABs from developing across the state.

The state offers an Agricultural Best Management Practice Cost-Share Program with the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation. 

The program works in the form of reimbursements, sometimes as much as 100%, to help farmers reduce the amount of runoff coming off their property. Projects eligible for funding include fencing to keep cattle out of streams and planting cover crops to prevent erosion.

Some $86 million was allocated by the Virginia Soil and Water Conservation Board to land exclusively or partly within the Chesapeake Bay watershed, which includes Lake Anna and the Shenandoah River. Roughly $36.8 million was allocated for areas outside the Chesapeake Bay watershed.

Reducing nutrient runoff from multiple sources may contribute to a reduction in HABs, said DCR spokesperson Dave Neudeck. 

“This year’s record amount of state funding for agricultural best management practices will accelerate the implementation of conservation measures that will reduce nutrient runoff from farm-related sources,” Neudeck said. “Other sectors, such as development, are also working to reduce their nutrient runoff to assist with Chesapeake Bay cleanup.”

DEQ and VDH received $3.5 million in the biennial budget to study harmful algal blooms in Lake Anna and the Shenandoah River, which feeds water to the Chesapeake Bay.  Calos said the work is expected to include monitoring.

Citizen monitoring of blooms to assist DEQ and VDH is already occurring. The Lake Anna Civic Association has contributed hundreds of data points on blooms, the September report noted.

“We’re frustrated,” LACA President Greg Baker said of the advisories continually being issued for Lake Anna.

A July listing of Lake Anna as impaired means the state will begin a cleanup plan to reduce the flow of pollutants into the body.

The designation will be removed once data are given to the EPA showing water quality criteria have been met or changes to assessments.

On Wednesday, the State Water Control Board also expanded the criteria it uses to determine if algae mats, which can produce harmful algae toxins, have reached nuisance levels on the Shenandoah River.

Chesapeake Bay Foundation Virginia Executive Director Peggy Sanner touted reducing pollution runoff as a solution to algal blooms.

“Virginia’s elected leaders invested historic levels of funding in programs that reduce pollution to Virginia’s rivers, lakes, and streams,” Sanner said. “This funding should make a significant difference. DEQ’s work monitoring and identifying impaired waters, along with the efforts of local groups such as the Lake Anna Civic Association, is also crucial to focusing these restoration efforts where they are most needed.”

This story has been updated to correct budget allocations made by the Soil and Water Conservation Board. 

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Charlie Paullin
Charlie Paullin

Charles Paullin covers energy and environment for the Mercury. He previously worked for Northern Virginia Daily in the Northern Shenandoah Valley and for the New Britain Herald in central Connecticut. An Alexandria native, Charles graduated from the University of Hartford initially wanting to cover sports. He's received several Virginia Press Association awards for his coverage of crime, local government and state politics. Catch him in nature experiencing all the outdoors has to offer, and contact him at [email protected]

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