Fairview Beach photo

Experts from Hampton Roads will try to find the source of bacteria in the river at Fairview Beach.

Local, state and federal officials are addressing two different problems at Fairview Beach that have one nasty common denominator: human waste, and how to keep it out of the water.

One effort, which is about to get help from high-tech scientists, involves figuring out where waste has flowed from the waterfront community in King George County into the Potomac River—and stopping it at the source.

The solution has evaded officials for more than a decade, and as bacteria has entered the river, the Virginia Department of Health has suggested swimmers stay out of it. The state looks at the concentration of bacteria and issues an advisory if the “most probable number” tops 104 per 100 milliliters of water.

Fairview Beach’s levels have numbered in the thousands. In May 2016, a sample taken from one of four sites registered 7,947.

The second effort is the latest step in a long-hoped for federal initiative to keep a county sewage line that’s precariously close to the edge of a riverbank from falling off the cliff and dumping even more sewage into the river.

“All it takes is one more major storm barreling up the Potomac and we could have a catastrophic landslide,” said Christopher Werle, a member of the King George County Service Authority’s Board of Directors.

Local officials made strides this week with both projects.

TRACKING WASTE

On Friday, the Tri-County/City Soil & Water Conservation District’s Board of Directors voted unanimously to partner with King George County, which will pay officials with the Hampton Roads Sanitation District up to $24,000 to look into the pollution at Fairview Beach.

Likened to crime-scene investigators, the Hampton Roads scientists use high-tech equipment to do microbial source tracking, which is like a DNA analysis on poo.

The Hampton Roads investigators will determine the type of waste and where it originates, said Tri-County/City Director Marta Perry.

Finding the source isn’t as simple as it sounds. Previous studies have suggested a heavy concentration of birds, and other wildlife, were pooping at Fairview Beach. Others who looked into the problem wondered if contamination came from boaters discharging their sewage or from a leaky septic tank at a nearby trailer park.

County officials know at least 27 percent of the waste is human, Service Authority Board Chairman Mike Bennett said last fall, but no test has pinpointed an origin.

As part of the first phase, which will cost about $8,175, Hampton Roads officials will identify the problem, then map out a plan to solve it, Perry said.

“They’ve had fantastic success with it,” she said. “We are super excited about this.”

‘CASTING A WIDE NET’

The reason the Tri-County/City Soil & Water Conservation District is involved is complicated, just like the pollution problem at Fairview Beach.

In 2014, the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality ordered the King George Service Authority to pay $24,000 to the soil and water group. The Service Authority had violations at two nearby wastewater treatment plants, and the DEQ imposed the assessment.

The money went into a Tri-County/City fund to be used for a King George project to improve water quality.

Tri-County/City and members of the Fairview Beach Residents Association—who have diligently helped with water sampling, cleaned up the beach and tried to keep erosion at bay for decades—tried to find a suitable project for the funds, but nothing met the guidelines, Perry said.

“Now, we have the great fortune to get hooked up with the Hampton Roads Sanitation Authority and get educated on the current science available to us,” she said.

Because the Hampton Roads authority is a municipal entity, it can enter into contracts only with other municipalities. That’s why the Tri-County/City board had to approve giving the money back to King George County, and its Board of Supervisors on Tuesday agreed to move forward with a contract with Hampton Roads.

The plan is to test 20 sites at Fairview Beach, three times each.

“We’re sort of casting a wide net over the Fairview Beach watershed,” said Bennett, who’s also the president of the Fairview Beach Residents Association. “I think we the residents have done as much as we could possibly do, in conjunction with the Department of Health, to try to figure this out. We got to the point last year that we needed scientific assistance.”

‘WORSE EVERY DAY’

Another type of assessment is needed for the second waste-related problem at Fairview Beach, and Service Authority officials voted to pay for it, given that time is of the essence.

The Service Authority is requesting $2.3 million in Federal Emergency Management Agency funds for the Fairview Beach Riverbank Stabilization Project. Werle has led the effort to compile the massive paperwork needed and has regularly cited the eroding cliff along Fairview Drive, near the corner of Second Street, where the road and water pipe are a few feet from the edge.

The stabilization project would reinforce the cliff and provide riprap fortifications along with more dirt, sand and vegetative cover.

Because the erosion “is getting worse every day,” Werle and other Service Authority board members hoped FEMA would fast-track the fast track. But Werle learned last month from the Virginia Department of Emergency Management, which also is involved, that the project faces another hurdle.

FEMA wants an environmental assessment on the project’s impact. If the federal agency does the assessment, it will take another six months, Werle told the Service Authority board.

He didn’t like the idea of the Service Authority paying for the study, given its financial predicament and how many other repairs are needed at county plants. But he’s concerned that a summer storm may trigger a landslide that could damage large sections of county water and sewer lines that serve both Fairview Beach and Potomac Landing.

The landslide would impact the nearby roads and as many as 33 private homes, according to county documents. Repairing the damage would cost at least $11 million, according to the grant application.

Werle proposed using grant funds left over from other water quality improvement projects to pay for the assessment. Fellow Service Authority board members agreed and appropriated $20,000 for Schnabel Engineering to do the environmental assessment. The Glen Allen company is familiar with the project and already has worked with FEMA on it.

Using the company would “help speed things up, get the project back on track much sooner, and greatly reduce the risk inherent with waiting for FEMA,” according to county documents.

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Cathy Dyson: 540/374-5425 cdyson@freelancestar.com

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