It’s been nearly three months since Albemarle County resident Scott Fox first noticed a number of plastic bags littered across the bank of the Rivanna River behind his house, caught on rocks and tree limbs in the water and trapped below the water’s surface.
Fox, who lives in a small, A-frame house right on the river’s north fork, says he’s seen about 100 plastic bags at one time in the mile-long stretch of water that circles his property. The plastic comes from sandbags used in an emergency water main repair and relocation, according to Rivanna Water and Sewer Authority Executive Director Tom Frederick.
In a routine check last summer, an RWSA inspector noticed that, because of erosion, part of a pipe in the Rivanna’s north fork was exposed in the river bank, says Frederick. Federal regulations require a series of steps before contractors can begin fixing the pipe, so although the discovery was critical, the authority wasn’t able to begin relocating the pipe until November and had plans to finish by January, weather permitting.
During a recent trip to Fox’s house, at least 25 bags were visible around the river—some strung up in trees blowing in the wind and others submerged, but given away by dark, round shadows under the water’s surface. As it started to snow that day, some bags began to blend into the landscape.
RWSA is committed to restoring the area, but the weather, Frederick says, is a major factor in delaying the cleanup.
With recent snow and rain storms, river flows, or water levels, have been dangerously high. “We’re at nature’s mercy,” Frederick says. “We’re not going to put somebody in jeopardy.”
When Fox made his initial complaint, the RWSA asked contractors to clean up the area and an engineer was immediately sent to Fox’s house. The contractors gathered some bags, according to communications manager Teri Kent, but high waters prevented them from eliminating all trash. They will eventually need to take a boat down the river to collect it all, she says.
In the meantime, Frederick says the trash in the river won’t harm the environment.
“It’s inert material,” he says. “It’s construction material that was properly put in place and washed away by the flood.”
But Fox is frustrated with what he calls the “overwhelming pollution” and the contractor’s failure to remove it.
“If you put a thousand bags in the water, I want to see a thousand come out,” Fox says. “Right now, they’re showing me 20.”
The perfect solution? Fox has one. He proposes taking the issue to someone such as Rob Bell, a member of the Virginia House of Delegates and an Albemarle resident, and asking that the state mandate labeling materials that could become litter.
“Can we please put names and phones numbers on bags and anything else they put in the river?” he asks.