Cleaning up the Clean Water Act


On January 12, against the backdrop of the Rivanna River and a perfectly clear sky, Ari Rubenstein, organizer of Environment Virginia, told a small audience that included City Councilor Dede Smith and Albemarle Supervisor Ann Mallek that it was time to restore the Clean Water Act.

Angus Murdoch (left), Rivanna Conservation Society board member, and Ann Mallek, chairwoman of the Albemarle County Board of Supervisors, share their concerns for cleaner water in Virginia. (Photo by John Robinson)

This year marks the 40th anniversary of the act. However, the Clean Water Act is not what it used to be. Due to several Supreme Court cases questioning whether smaller waterways such as headwaters and seasonal streams were protected, loopholes have emerged over the years. These loopholes have left 57 percent of Virginia’s streams, and the drinking water of 2.3 million residents, unprotected.

“To be able to truly celebrate 40 years of clean water,” said Rubenstein, “we need to protect our rivers and the Chesapeake Bay by restoring the Clean Water Act.”

This month, President Obama will receive a letter, signed by over 80 Virginia farmers and elected officials, urging him to support the protection of Virginia’s waterways. The president has proposed guidelines that will clear up ambiguities, and concerned Virginia residents want him to continue and finalize the process in 2012, as well as clarify which waterways are protected.

Angus Murdoch, a local farmer and Rivanna Conservation Society board member, spoke on the importance of clean headwaters. He explained that, “Unless you’re standing a stone’s throw from the river, you’re in a headwater stream”—drainage ditches, small springs, even storm drains. If we do not take care of them, cautioned Murdoch, we are not going to see improvements in the larger waterways.

“What we do to the headwaters is what we do to the river, to the Bay,” said Murdoch.

The City of Charlottesville is doing more than sending letters to the president. In 2012, the city, along with the Nature Conservancy and the Rivanna Trail Foundation, will work to restore a portion of one of Charlottesville’s major waterways, Meadow Creek. The stream, a part of the Rivanna River watershed (and thus a part of the Chesapeake Bay watershed), has been listed as an “impaired waterway,” due to extreme bank erosion and sedimentation. Such pollution-laden sediments can suffocate fish, block sunlight needed for vegetation, and ultimately destroy aquatic habitats along the streambeds.

“While the restoration project is going to look messy for a while, the end result will be a healthier stream and forest for our community,” said Diana Foster, a member of the Rivanna Trail Foundation (RTF) board. Foster said that RTF “has been most pleased with the information that The Nature Conservancy has provided to us well in advance of the project, and we have been working closely with Chris Gensic [the city’s parks and trails planner] to provide safe hiking alternatives for trail users during restoration.”

The city will also conduct a number of small projects to restore the stream—among them, the replacement of invasive species with native plants and trees that will reduce erosion and further sedimentation. The city has compiled a design for the creek, and workers will reduce the steep slope of the high stream beds, and add structures to realign the stream channel.