After years of trying to determine the source of human and animal waste polluting the Potomac River at Fairview Beach, King George County officials are calling in an agency whose workers have been likened to crime-scene investigators.
That’s the Hampton Roads Sanitary District, which in 2015 invested more than $400,000 in a microbial source-tracking program, according to The Virginian Pilot. While the newspaper quipped there may never be a TV show called “CSI: Sewage,” HRSD workers use tools similar to detectives investigating murders to find the culprit of fecal bacteria that’s oozing into local waterways.
The process tracks DNA characteristics that can be “fingerprinted” or tied to a type of mammal, human or bird, according to Michigan State University’s Center for Water Sciences.
Danny Barker, an environmental scientist with the HRSD in Virginia Beach, gave a presentation to King George and state officials on Sept. 24. The district “is one of a handful of U.S. wastewater treatment authorities that have committed to the technology for such investigations,” stated the Fairview Beach Homeowners Association on its website. “Perhaps Mr. Barker can finally solve our problem.”
That’s what Mike Bennett, association president and vice chairman of the King George County Service Authority, is hoping. He called together the meeting of 20 government officials, including representatives from King George County, Virginia Department of Health, Virginia Department of Environmental Quality, Tri-County City Soil and Water Conservation District and the homeowners.
Last week, Bennett shared details of the session at the Service Authority’s twice-monthly Board of Directors meeting.
Regularly, Fairview Beach is considered unsafe for swimming because of high levels of bacteria in the water, especially enterococci, a bacteria found in the feces of humans and animals.
“Historically at Fairview Beach, 27 percent of the bacteria is from human sources,” Bennett said. “That is unacceptable. There’s not much we can do about animals, but surely we can keep human waste out of the water.”
The problem is, agencies haven’t been able to determine where the waste is coming from. One report said excess bird droppings caused high levels of contamination; others have speculated it came from boats that tie up on the dock and dump waste from their holding tanks.
As Bennett pointed out, officials suspected the trailer park at Fairview Beach for many years because one of its septic systems is perilously close to the river and a recent report suggested brown water was running down the hill from the trailers.
But that theory doesn’t hold water either, Bennett said, in light of this year’s beach monitoring. The local caretaker of the trailer park had two septic tanks pumped out last fall, then this summer “was one of the worst years” for bacterial totals, he added.
The Virginia Department of Health issues warnings that the water isn’t safe for swimmers if there’s at least 104 colony forming units of bacteria per 100 milliliters of water. This summer, the numbers reached 3,466 units, Bennett said, adding the rain and runoff seemed to contribute to the problem.
Swimming advisories were posted 10 times and covered more than 30 days, or one-third of the total summer, according to the Health Department.
“Using the data, I can prove there is a significant public health problem, but I’m not a scientist and don’t know how to locate the source,” Bennett said.
After the Sept. 24 meeting, the Health Department gave the Hampton Roads officials a tour of the Fairview Beach watershed. Barker will propose an initial plan for the project and provide cost estimates for each phase.
Several agencies are willing to allocate funds to at least start the project, according to the Fairview Beach Homeowners website.
Jeff Bueche, who represents Fairview Beach on the King George Board of Supervisors, attended the Sept. 24 session and said he was encouraged that the county has good partners who can identify the source.