Middle-Aged Tarzans Hurtling into the James? What Are They Thinking?

Today's guest blog is from Krista Schlyer, a professional photographer with the International League of Conservation Photographers who has been documenting the pollution issues plaguing the Chesapeake Bay. Last time we heard from Krista she was exploring the Anacostia River in Maryland. She has since moved on to Virginia's James River.

Remember when every kid had a swimming hole and every river a rope swing? I remember heading down to the creek swinging a metal pail with an apple and sandwich Ma made for me, fishing pole on my shoulder, Albert waiting for me at our favorite spot. Wait, no, that was Little House on the Prairie. But I swam in rivers once, I think. Don’t remember. But I do remember very clearly the day when I was about 9 years old and my mom wouldn’t let us go swimming with a group of kids in the St. Joe River in northern Indiana. A friend of hers had recently gotten a chunk of glass lodged in his leg while swimming in the river, and it was off limits to us ever after.

Not being able to swim in a river on a hot day is kind of like being dehydrated, having a glass of water right in front of you but knowing it is at least a little bit poisonous. It’s torture, the deepest kind of alienation from the earth. But I’ve always figured we were all in the same boat. I didn’t think people swam in urban rivers any more, which is why during my trip to Richmond to cover the James River for the Chesapeake Bay RAVE, my jaw dropped wide open when I saw a whole community of people swimming off the city’s riverbank. My first inclination was to stop the people around me and say, “Did you see this? What the crack are they doin?” Multiple rope swings were set up along a stretch of the river in downtown Richmond. Kids and adults alike waited in line for their turn at the rope. Grown men hollered Tarzan yells and tried to outdo each other when it came their turns. Is this Mars? 1950? A rerun of Gentle Ben?

Few people swim in the Potomac or the Anacostia Rivers, in part because it is illegal in the District of Columbia due to concerns about the health of the water. I once did a triathlon swim in the Potomac, but there were daily tests of the water quality leading up to the event. Had there been a good rain, the swimming portion of the event would have been canceled rather than risk illness of swimming in the river. So seeing these apparently normal human beings swimming in the James made my head spin. It looked like so much fun. It occurred to me, maybe the James is just that much cleaner than the Potomac.

No, not really. The sewage that flows into the river after large rains pours in downstream of where most people swim, which helps increase water quality for swimmers. But the suburbs and rural agriculture runoff that enter the James upstream ensure that unhealthy chemicals and fecal matter are part of the water here just as they are in the Potomac. Swimmers can get ear and intestinal infections, and who knows what else, but the idea of not swimming in the river must be worse than swimming in a polluted river. How’s that for a choice?

On a walk along the James the following morning, I happened across one of the signs the city of Richmond displays to explain the sewage overflow system to its citizens. In an unfortunate choice of colors, the brown sign has a caricature of a fish who looks quite pleased with himself for swimming above the outflows of sewage coming from urban Richmond. The text supports the contentment of the poster-fish, saying the fish and birds are not harmed by sewage because the pollutants are mixed into the river water by the rapids. Water + poo = smiley. The sign also reads: “Releasing storm water here two or three times a year is an economically and socially prudent way to combine the impact of a vibrant urban community with the need for a clean and healthy river.” I’m not sure how putting sewage in the river makes it cleaner and healthier, but I’m no expert. And that fish sure looks happy.

The reflections of the city off the river in soft morning light, combined with thoughts of a city of middle-aged Tarzans hurtling themselves into the James, highlight what an amazing resource the river is. This city seems in the process of a great revitalization. There are terrific restaurants featuring local foods, there are new galleries and river parks, the kind of things that lead to healthier living and greater quality of life. But soft-pedaling the impact of human waste, street and industrial runoff, and agricultural pollutants flowing into the river seems unnecessary. We have made strides on water quality. Many rivers are in better shape than they were a couple of decades ago, thanks to the Clean Water Act. But we have a long way to go before we can tell people they no longer have to make a choice between swimming in our rivers and their health. Pathogens with ominous names like vibrio, cyanobacteria and crypto sporidium, along with mercury from coal plants and nitrates from farm and lawn runoff, pose potentially serious health risks to people and wildlife. Back in the 1950s and 60s we may have had the excuse that we didn’t know the impact of human pollution on our watersheds. We no longer have that excuse. Now it comes down to a choice between making important changes, or continuing business as usual and accepting our alienation from our own rivers.

On August 23, 2010, Virginia released its latest 303d Water Quality Report. According to the report, the number of waterways on the state's "dirty waters list" continues to increase. Find out more about the report on CBF.org.

For more information about the continuing health hazardous posed in our waterways, read our Bay Daily Blog post, "Increased Risk of Dangerous Infections from the Bay" and download our 2009 Bad Water report, "The Impact on Human Health in the Chesapeake Bay Region."

The debate is hot in PA

Pennsylvania newspapers are filled with articles about municipalities who are frustrated about the costs of cleaning up the Chesapeake Bay. The cleanup is federally mandated--but unfunded, and if a 2010 deadline for meeting these mandatory water quality standards isn't met, the federal government could come down harder with even stricter standards. But local jurisdictions don't know how they're going to come up with the hundreds of millions of dollars it will take to comply. CBF has joined the call for the Rendell administration to provide funds to municipalities struggling to meet sewage treatment upgrade requirements.

If you live near Harrisburg, you might want to attend tonight's panel discussion on the Chesapeake Bay cleanup and its effects on sewage bills. The discussion will be held from 5 - 7 p.m. at the Holiday Inn West, 5401 Carlisle Pike, Mechanicsburg. Panel participants include Kathleen McGinty, secretary of the Dept. of Environmental Protection; John Brosius, deputy director of the Pennsylvania Municipal Authorities Association; and Scott Wyland, lawyer for the Capital Region Council of Governments.

Report Bad Water Quality

Badwatershotline 1.866.666.9260
Write that number down.

The news this summer has been dismal. Three-hundred-thousand fish dead in Mattox Creek off the Potomac River in July. Twenty thousand in Weems Creek in June. A six-mile-long algal bloom in the Potomac.

We want to know more about what's going on in our rivers and Bay, and we need your help to do it.

If you see or hear about something troubling on the water —like an algal bloom, fish kill, or "crab jubilee"—inform the proper authorities and call CBF'S Bad Water Strike Force Hotline at 1.866.666.9260.

When you call, you'll be asked for some basic information, including:

  • Where and when did the event happen?
  • What did the water look like?
  • Were there dead fish? If so, how many, what kind, big or small?
  • What were the weather conditions?
  • Have you or can you take a picture of the event?
  • Have you contacted the appropriate state agency?

At the end of the summer, CBF will use your data to develop a report on bad water events in the region.  We will share the report with government officials and urge them to support funding for Bay restoration. We'll also share the report with you.

VA Legislature Makes Clean Water A Priority

CBF’s top legislative priority in the 2007 Virginia General Assembly session was approving up to $250 million in additional funding for cleaning up Virginia’s streams, rivers, and the Chesapeake Bay. On February 24th, the General Assembly authorized the funding. CBF congratulates the legislators for continuing to make clean water a priority.

Septic upgrade grant funding available for Charles County residents

One more strike against nitrogen, one more point for the Bay.

The Charles County Commissioners and the Charles County Department of Health today announced that grant funding will be available to homeowners wishing to upgrade their on-site sewage disposal system with nitrogen removal capability. The grant funding will also pay for the first five years of maintenance. These funds are made available through the fees paid to the Bay Restoration Fund by owners of on-site sewage disposal systems. (Southern Maryland Headline News)

Anne Arundel homeowners can get funds for septic systems

Starting February 20, 2007, a property owner can submit a grant application to the Anne Arundel County Department of Health to repair or upgrade their septic system.  Funds for these grants come from the "flush tax" or the Bay Restoration Fund, and the county has enough funds to pay for about 130 systems.  Projects involving the repair or upgrade of an existing septic system in the Chesapeake Bay Critical Area will be ranked the highest priority and, if funds are available, recommended for immediate approval.  For more information and an application to fill out and mail, see: http://www.aahealth.org/a2z.asp?id=208  The application must include a site plan showing the size and shape of the property, house location, well and septic system on the property.  You also need to include a legal description of your property, which should be on your property tax bill, or you can look it up online here: http://sdatcert3.resiusa.org/rp_rewrite/  then choose Anne Arundel, Street address, and enter your house number and name of your street without the Rd, St, etc.

For any questions not answered on the web page, contact Kim Roy, Environmental Program Supervisor, at 410-222-7193.

National budget cuts funds for the bay

The bay has been getting a lot of support from local lawmakers so far this year, but federal support has gone south. Today's Annapolis Capital reports that President Bush's proposed budget includes more than $75 million in cuts to Chesapeake Bay programs.

"If the president's budget were enacted, it would be devastating for the bay," said Senator Ben Cardin.

The proposed cuts reduce funding for sewage plant upgrades, education, oyster restoration, land preservation, as well as cutting $1.6 million from the NOAA Chesapeake Bay Office in Eastport.

What have we been doing for 19 years?

An article in today's Washington Post includes the following quote from J. Charles Fox, a former head of the Maryland Department of Natural Resources about efforts over the past 19 years to clean up the Chesapeake Bay:

"We have done a truly tremendous job of defining the problem, and we have done a truly tremendous job of defining the solution. But we have not yet succeeded in actually implementing the solution."

National and local legislators throughout the Chesapeake Bay watershed will be tackling tough questions during this session. Keep David Fahrenthold's article in mind when the time comes to decide what efforts need your support.

More from the Washington Post: