Emerging Regional Water Challenges – Waters of Virginia

Written by: Clay Ferguson, Ph.D. student and Water INTERface IGEP fellow in the Food Science and Technology Department, College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, Virginia Tech.

Sunrise on the James River between Howardsville and Scottsville. Photo by Mason Riffee (University of Virginia)

Dr. Stephen H. Schoenholtz, director of the Virginia Water Resource Research Center (VWRRC) and professor in the Department of Forest Resources and Environmental Conservation at Virginia Tech, delivered a seminar this Spring to students enrolled in Virginia Tech’s Water for Health class that outlined on-going challenges affecting Waters of Virginia (WOV) as well as other global communities. His message provided a sobering perspective that while all these water-challenges result from past and current human actions, future human actions are the key to overcoming them. Here we present a couple concerning water-issues to be aware of as a steward of the commonwealths most precious resources.

In order for freshwater to support the life of terrestrial (including humans) and aquatic organisms, salts and other dissolvable solutes must not be present above 1000 ppm (USGS 2020). Concerningly, salinization is a growing issue due to the high frequency of factors depositing salts and solutes into WOV. Industry, mining and fracking, septic systems, agriculture, concrete leaching, water treatment plants, and winter-road deicing all contribute to elevated salt concentrations in surface and ground waters. Total dissolved salts have steadily increased throughout the past half century and without intervention, are projected to continue increasing well above the EPA health-advisory thresholds (Kaushal et al 2018). That threshold has already been surpassed in some regions of Virginia (VA) (Grant, 2020 unpublished).

On-going climate change and intensified agricultural production provide the two factors needed for harmful algal blooms to occur each year: higher temperatures and nutrient loads. Resultingly, these algal blooms can consume all regional oxygen in a given body of water, causing mass fish kills such as those well-documented in the Chesapeake Bay (Li et al. 2015). What’s more, certain algal species produce harmful toxins capable of affecting native wildlife or people unlucky enough to be exposed to or drink it. There is no instantaneous remedy for reoccurring algal blooms. Instead, practical measures that limit the use of excessive fertilizers or slow erosion rates into VA tributaries are efforts that when united across the WOV, can make real progress in curbing the frequency and severity of this issue.

Dr. Schoenholtz and folks at the VWRRC recognize the complexity of issues facing the WOV. In response, they actively support leading water-research studies carried out by students at Virginia Tech and deliver exceptionally relevant and invaluable water-resource information to interested citizens, water specialists, and professionals. Collectively, their efforts help ensure our water-issues are well-understood and that citizens of VA are well-aware, so that collaborative efforts can make VA waters healthy for all. If you too feel the call-to-action, following VWRRC is a great first step to becoming active in a mission determined to bring positive change to the WOV.

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