As thousands of students brace for their final report cards of the year, there’s another local entity about to get its first formal grading: the Rappahannock River.
Friends of the Rappahannock is wrapping up a 14-month project that will allow it, at three public presentations next week, to assign a letter grade to the health of the river in the Middle Rappahannock Region.
While the group is holding that final grade close to the vest until publicly revealing it on a three-stop “Brew Tour” in the region next week, the FOR staffer who has overseen the report gave a few hints.
“It won’t be an A, but it won’t be an F either,” said Adam Lynch, FOR’s full-time restoration coordinator. “We’re still putting the last, final pieces together to reach this letter grade for this section of the river that includes Fredericksburg, Stafford, Spotsylvania, King George and Caroline.”
To find out how Lynch and a handful of other FOR staffers and interns came up with this report card, I caught up with him Thursday afternoon as he was pulling together posters and information that will be presented at next week’s sessions.
He noted that perhaps the hardest thing in the process was coming up with a way to grade the river. The staffers looked at assessments done of the Potomac and James rivers by other organizations, and decided to make this assessment what Lynch called “hyper-local.”
“We focused on 11 tributaries that feed into the river,” said Lynch. “The idea is that the result would empower communities to act locally on a neighborhood-by-neighborhood level. … When you break environmental problems into bite-sized pieces and talk about peoples’ backyard stream or park, they become easier to digest and to solve.”
Lynch said that he and the study group selected the tributaries to be included based on known water-quality problems and to give the assessment a variety of different types of streams to provide a representative sampling.
He said the study broke concerns and problems into four different topics: stream ecology, human health, land use and community engagement. Each gets its own letter grade in the report.
Instead of going out to do extensive testing and monitoring, something Lynch said FOR didn’t have the manpower for, the group analyzed existing data, including new “land-cover” data from the state that goes down to the square meter.
“We came up with a host of indicators for grading,” said Lynch. “For instance, in the area of human health, we looked at bacteria levels in the streams, unsafe levels of chemicals in fish, contaminated sites and recreational health risks.”
That “human health” area produced one of the biggest concerns revealed by the study.
“We found that unsafe bacterial levels are a big concern,” he said. “Levels were unacceptable and unhealthy in 8 of the 11 streams we looked at, certain reaches of those streams with those unsafe levels. ... We believe these can be sourced to sewer systems, illegal discharges and some septic waste.”
He said that disappearing land cover and the lack of open-space protection was another area of concern.
“Several of the counties had only between 1 to 3 percent of their land under any kind of space protection,” he said of easements and public ownership to protect natural spaces. “These counties are extremely vulnerable to the development bearing down on us.”
Another reason for concern is the rapid addition of imperious surfaces near streams.
“As growth continues, the impervious surfaces replacing forest land are like daggers to these streams,” he said. “They accelerate storm water and circumvent the ability to filter rainwater, shooting runoff right into streams.
Lack of access to these streams, is another worry, since there are not enough trails or parks to get people close to the tributaries.
Lynch said FOR hopes people who might attend the meetings next week will be moved to get involved and help solve problems highlighted in the study. He noted that FOR will also present the findings to government officials, and seek help with problems from agencies and other groups that can affect change on a larger scale.
“From an individual, help can be something as simple as using less or no fertilizer on your lawns, or adding a rain garden or rain barrel to limit runoff,” he said. “Or a neighborhood association taking on a problem as a project.”
He noted that the tributaries included in the study are Hazel Run, two different Deep Runs, Falls Run, Horsepen Run, England Run, Claiborne Run, White Oak Run, Muddy Creek, Massaponax Creek and Portabago Creek.
Lynch said the hope is to eventually get to a point where a cycle could be established so FOR could assess the Upper Rappahannock, Middle Rappahannock and Lower Rappahannock in a cycle every few years.
“The changes from one study to the next would also tell us a lot,” he said.