Virginia water board approves new sediment limits in five counties over aquatic life impacts – Virginia Mercury

Virginia water board approves new sediment limits in five counties ...  Virginia Mercury

Virginia water board approves new sediment limits in five counties over aquatic life impacts – Virginia Mercury

New Limits on Sediment Pollution in Virginia Waterways

The State Water Control Board last week approved new limits on how much sediment, or loose dirt, can enter into waterways in the counties of Rockbridge, Augusta, Bedford, Franklin, and Pittsylvania because of the impact such pollution has on aquatic life.

Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) Emphasis:

  • SDG 6: Clean Water and Sanitation
  • SDG 14: Life Below Water
  • SDG 15: Life on Land

The new limits, called waste load allocations, are being imposed by the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ), which found that aquatic or semi-aquatic insects like mayflies, stoneflies, and caddisflies are less prevalent on waterways in those counties than in waters elsewhere. 

Scientists are concerned about the low number of insects because of the ripple effect that decreases in those species can have on other aquatic life, like fish, who feed on them. Mayflies, for example, “not only move nutrients within aquatic ecosystems, but they also move nutrients between them,” found one 2019 study published in Insects journal.

“The degradation of insects has vast consequences for the water,” said Joe Wood, a scientist with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.

The agency found that a roughly 20-mile total stretch of segments of Moores and Mill creeks in Rockbridge and Augusta counties, as well as segments of Beaverdam Creek, Fryingpan Creek, Pigg River, and Poplar Branch in Bedford, Franklin, and Pittsylvania counties, “do not support a healthy and diverse community of aquatic life.” 

“Without this valuable habitat, the diversity of aquatic life in a stream may be severely limited,” DEQ concluded.  

The waterways were previously identified as impaired in Virginia’s 2020 Water Quality Assessment Integrated Report, which found they weren’t meeting standards for healthy populations of benthic animals, or those that dwell at the bottom of waterways. 

In 2021, a DEQ analysis found that the primary stressor to insects in the impaired waterways was sediment. While sediment can be washed into waterways from many sources, including construction sites, the agency’s research points to farming as a main culprit. Fields that don’t have a cover crop with deep roots to hold dirt in place are more susceptible to releasing sediment than acreage that is forested or blanketed with no-till plantings that minimize soil disturbance. 

According to DEQ, the largest amounts of sediment flowing into the Moores and Mill creek watersheds — about 55% and 54%, respectively — come from hay and pastureland, with the rest coming from forested, urban/suburban, and other sources. Beaverdam Creek, Fryingpan Creek, Pigg River, and Poplar Branch also traced the majority of their sediment to hay and pastureland, with loads ranging between 36% and 61%.

If sediment loads flowing into these waterways can be reduced, “healthy aquatic life is expected to be restored in these streams,” DEQ found. 

DEQ’s Plan to Meet New Limits

  1. Craft a plan to meet the new limits
  2. Obtain approval from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency

DEQ will now craft a plan to meet the new limits, which will require approval by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. While the agency will be calling for reductions across multiple sectors, the agricultural decreases it’s seeking will be significant, ranging from 23% for some watersheds to 76% for others. 

Some of the strategies DEQ will likely be including in its plan are:

  • Planting riparian buffers — bands of trees along streams whose roots filter out sediment
  • Fencing cattle out of streams
  • Encouraging farmers to adopt conservation tillage practices
  • Restoring eroded stream banks
  • Expanding street sweeping programs in urban areas

The department says it won’t require local pollution sources that already have a stormwater permit, such as Devils Backbone Brewing Company in the Mill Creek watershed, to change their operations to meet the new load reductions.

Virginia’s Cost-Share Programs for Farmers

Virginia operates cost-share programs to help farmers adopt best management practices (BMPs) to reduce pollution. The General Assembly put $116 million toward the programs last year, and $286 million was allocated this year as a result of a state revenue surplus. 

Legislation this past session


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