State of the Beach/State Reports/VA/Water Quality

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Virginia Ratings
Indicator Type Information Status
Beach Access65
Water Quality77
Beach Erosion4-
Erosion Response-5
Beach Fill6-
Shoreline Structures6 2
Beach Ecology4-
Surfing Areas58
Coastal Development{{{19}}}{{{20}}}
Sea Level Rise{{{21}}}{{{22}}}

Water Quality Monitoring Program

The Beaches Environmental Assessment and Coastal Health Act (BEACH Act) signed into law on October 10, 2000, amends the federal Clean Water Act (CWA), incorporating provisions intended to reduce the risk of illness to users of the Nation's recreational waters. The BEACH Act authorizes the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to award program development and implementation grants to eligible States, Territories, Tribes, and local governments to support microbiological testing and monitoring of coastal recreation waters, including the Great Lakes, that are adjacent to beaches or similar points of access used by the public. BEACH Act grants also provide support for development and implementation of programs to notify the public of the potential exposure to disease-causing microorganisms in coastal recreation waters. EPA encourages coastal States and Territories to apply for BEACH Act Grants for Program Implementation (referred to as Implementation Grants) to implement effective and comprehensive coastal recreation water monitoring and public notification programs. CWA section 406(i) authorizes appropriations of up to $30 million per year to develop and implement beach programs. Unfortunately, only about one-third that amount has been authorized each year since the program's inception. In recent years, the total funding available for BEACH Act grants has been about $9.5 million. Funding beyond 2012 has been in jeopardy, since EPA's budget requests for this program in FY2013 and FY2014 were ZERO (money for testing in 2013 and 2014 was ultimately allocated as part of Continuing Resolutions to resolve the Federal Budget impasse) and there was also no money for beach testing in the FY2015 budget. Again, it was restored at the last minute as part of a Continuing Resolution. It is very discouraging to have to fight for this basic funding to protect the public's health at the beach every year. Thankfully, there is a growing movement to provide stable funding. Unfortunately, in 2017 the situation is even more dire. If available, funds are allocated to the states and territories based on a formula which uses three factors that are readily available and verifiable: (1) Length of beach season, (2) miles of beach and (3) number of people that use the beaches. Virginia was eligible for a $262,000 grant in fiscal year 2016. The state’s beach monitoring and notification program is fully funded by BEACH Act grants.

The state has approximately 29 miles of public beaches. Just under 8.5 miles are ocean beaches; the remainder are located on the shores of Chesapeake Bay. The localities of Norfolk and Virginia Beach account for about 63% of the public beach shoreline.

Beach monitoring programs have been in place in Virginia Beach and Norfolk since the 1970s. With the passage of the BEACH Act, these programs were incorporated into a state level coordinated Beach Monitoring Program that includes weekly monitoring of bathing beaches for bacteria during the summer months, posting of beaches that exceed the State Water Quality Standards, and notification of the public through press releases to local newspapers and notices on the Virginia Department of Health Environmental Epidemiology Web page. The website has a map with current beach advisories. Here's a brochure on Virginia's Coastal Beach Monitoring Program.

Development of Virginia's state-level coordinated Beach Monitoring Program began in late 2001 and is in a period of continued development and concurrent implementation. The program is coordinated by the Division of Zoonotic and Environmental Epidemiology in the Virginia Department of Health, with weekly monitoring carried out by state employees in the local health departments.

Contamination of beaches and their adjacent waters by sanitary sewer overflows, breaks in wastewater pipes, boat discharges, storm water runoff, and wildlife can increase swimmers’ risks of contracting gastrointestinal illness, respiratory, eye, ear and skin infections, and other diseases. Many of these diseases are due to fecal contamination of the waters by these pollution sources.

The VDH Beach Monitoring Program has the potential to prevent public exposure to waterborne pathogens when they are at levels that pose a greater than normal risk at the locations in Virginia where the greatest number of people may be affected.

Samples are taken once per week from May 15 through the end of September at 47 public beaches on the Chesapeake Bay and Atlantic Ocean. Norfolk and Virginia Beach have conducted beach monitoring since 1976; they established their sites long ago based on representative sampling of a long stretch of beach. At Norfolk there are 9 sampling sites for 11 miles of beach; at Virginia Beach there are 24 sampling sites for 24 miles of beach. If a sample exceeds the water quality standard, re-sampling is conducted on a more frequent basis until the beach is in compliance. Daily, or every other day sampling may occur during the time period during which a beach is being monitored for an exceedance. Beach monitors are asked to wait for the results of a previous sample before re-sampling.

Advisories are issued when a single sample exceeds 104 enterococci per 100 milliliters of water or when the geometric mean of 5 samples collected over 30 days exceeds 33 enterococci.

The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) issued their last annual Testing the Waters report in June 2014. NRDC's report evaluates beach monitoring data relative to EPA's recommended Beach Action Value (BAV). The BAV is a more protective threshold than the national allowable bacteria levels used in previous years to trigger beach advisories. The EPA considers the BAV to be a "conservative, precautionary tool for making beach notification decisions."

NRDC ranked Virginia 6th in Beachwater Quality (out of 30 states). 5% of samples exceeded EPA's new BAV standards for designated beach areas in 2013.

Following is text from NRDC's 2014 report and/or previous reports.

Virginia has 49 public beaches stretching along 70 miles of Atlantic and Chesapeake Bay waters. The state's beach water quality monitoring program is administered by the Virginia Department of Health (VDH). Beachgoers can learn about beach advisories on the VDH beach monitoring website. Note that there are also links to information on specific local beaches.

Water Quality Challenges and Improvements
Beach monitoring has occurred at Norfolk and Virginia Beach since 1976. In the early 2000s, Virginia expanded the beach monitoring program to include all major beaches in the state. The VDH recognizes that contamination of beachwater due to sanitary sewer overflows, breaks in pipes, boat discharges, stormwater runoff, and wildlife poses a risk to human health. The goal of the program is to inform the public and protect recreational swimmers from contaminated water.

Since 2006, the VDH has partnered with Virginia Tech to help determine sources of pollution. When an exceedance of the standard is detected, a sample is sent to Virginia Tech for microbial source tracking analysis. Results are used to determine if the source of pollution is from humans, pets, or wildlife. If a human source is detected in the samples, the VDH and Virginia Tech review the data and collect additional samples if necessary to identify the source and notify the city or municipality. This information helps the city or municipality make infrastructure changes that improve water quality.

Sampling Practices: The monitoring season runs from mid-May through Labor Day, with some sites sampled through the beginning of October. The VDH determines sampling practices, locations, standards, and notification protocols and practices throughout the state. Samples are collected in water 0.5 meter deep, 0.3 meter from the surface.

Priority for monitoring is given to sampling sites that are in close proximity to wastewater outfalls, sites that have high bather load, and sites where there is easy access to the beach. If a beach is placed under advisory or closed, the water is resampled immediately (with a duplicate sample sent for microbial source tracking analysis), and the monitoring frequency is increased until the water meets state water quality standards and the beach is reopened. States that monitor more frequently after an exceedance tend to have higher percent exceedance rates and lower total closing/advisory days than they would if their sampling frequency did not increase after an exceedance was found.

The Virginia Department of Environmental Quality and VDH, including the Virginia Division of Shellfish Sanitation, work together to regularly monitor the water, including shellfish-growing areas, for the presence of harmful algal blooms and to conduct surveillance for human health effects.

Closings and Advisories
Standards and Procedures: The VDH has authority to issue advisories and to close beaches. Virginia’s water quality standard is a single-sample maximum of 104 cfu/100 ml. No geometric mean standard is applied when making closing and advisory decisions. If more than one sampling site at a beach exists, the average of the results for all sampling sites is used to make closing and advisory decisions for that beach. If a sample (or average of samples) exceeds the standard, an advisory is issued immediately and environmental health specialists are sent to the site for resampling.

A swimming advisory sign is posted at the beach, and a press release is sent to the local newspaper notifying the public that an exceedance of the state water quality standard has occurred. Additionally, advisory information is updated on the VDH beach monitoring website and map. The swimming advisory remains in place until laboratory results show that bacteria levels have fallen below Virginia’s water quality standard.

Virginia does not have preemptive rainfall standards, but closings and advisories may be considered on the basis of events such as a harmful algal blooms, fish kills, oil spills, or sewage spills.

Article XI of the Constitution of Virginia states that:

" shall be the Commonwealth's policy to protect its atmosphere, lands, and waters from pollution, impairment, or destruction, for the benefit, enjoyment, and general welfare of the people of the Commonwealth."

Other Monitoring Programs

Virginia's Citizen Water Quality Improvement Act

The purpose of the Virginia Water Quality Improvement Act of 1997 (WQIA) is to restore and improve the quality of state waters, and to protect them from impairment and destruction for the benefit of current and future citizens of the Commonwealth of Virginia (Section 10.1-2118 of the Code of Virginia). Because this is a shared responsibility among state and local governments and individuals, the Water Quality Improvement Fund (WQIF) was created. The purpose of the fund is to provide water quality improvement grants to local governments, soil and water conservation districts, and individuals, for point and nonpoint source pollution prevention, reduction, and control programs (Section 10.1-2128.B. of the Code of Virginia).

A primary objective of WQIF is to fund grants that will reduce the flow of excess nitrogen and phosphorus into the Chesapeake Bay through the implementation of the tributary strategies. The Virginia Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) is responsible for administering point source grants.

The Virginia Department of Environmental Quality monitors water quality in rivers, lakes and estuaries at some 1,100 locations, to detect pollutants and to assess pollution prevention efforts. The DEQ regulates discharges into state waters through Virginia Pollutant Discharge Elimination System and Virginia Pollution Abatement permits. The DEQ also administers Section 401 certification under the Clean Water Act, which includes non-tidal wetlands protection. More information on the DEQ's water programs. More information on water quality monitoring programs.

Virginia Citizen Water Quality Monitoring Program

Volunteers play an important role in protecting Virginia's natural resources by monitoring water quality throughout Virginia. Although DEQ has a large network of professional monitoring stations, DEQ cannot possibly monitor the 49,000 miles of streams in Virginia. Volunteer water quality data is used in a number of ways: to educate students and the community, to collect baseline information to prioritize monitoring needs and establish background conditions, to contribute to local land use decisions, to indicate unusual conditions, for special studies, and for statewide water quality assessment reports. Check out the Virginia Citizen Water Quality Monitoring Program and Surfrider Foundation's Virginia Beach Chapter Blue Water Task Force.

Algal Bloom and Shellfish Growing Area Monitoring Programs

The Phytoplankton Monitoring Network (PMN) is a National Ocean Service/National Center for Coastal Ocean Science program operating in 17 coastal states and the U.S. Virgin Islands with the ultimate goal of linking laboratory scientists to the general public. PMN's seven goals are:

  • To create a comprehensive list of harmful algal species inhabiting coastal marine waters
  • To monitor and maintain an extended survey area along coastal waters throughout the year
  • To isolate areas prone to harmful algal blooms (HABs) for further study by Marine Biotoxins researchers
  • To identify general trends, such as time and area, where HABs are more likely to occur
  • To promote increased awareness and education to the public, particularly students, on HABs
  • To increase the public's awareness of research conducted by federal and state workers on HABs
  • To create a working relationship with open communication between volunteers and researchers through PMN

The Virginia Department of Environmental Quality and the Virginia Department of Health, including the Virginia Division of Shellfish Sanitation, work together to regularly monitor the water and shellfish growing areas for the presence of harmful algal blooms and to conduct surveillance for human health effects. Monitoring for harmful algal blooms is conducted at 20 stations.

National Center for Coastal Ocean Science

National Ocean Service/National Center for Coastal Ocean Science (NCCOS) has carried out many water quality research projects in Virginia.

Water Quality Contacts

Division of Waterborne Hazards Control
Office of Epidemiology
Virginia Department of Health
(804) 786-9009

Rebecca LePrell
Virginia Department of Health

Alan Pollock
Virginia Department of Environmental Quality
(804) 698-4002

Beach Closures

Advisories and beach monitoring data are posted on the Virginia Department of Health’s website.

Hotline numbers for beach conditions in Virginia are:

  • Virginia Beach — (757) 518-2646
  • Norfolk — (757) 683-2712

NRDC reported:

In 2013, Virginia reported 49 coastal beaches, 46 of which were monitored. Of all reported beach monitoring samples, 5% exceeded the Beach Action Value (BAV) of 60 enterococcus bacteria colony forming units (cfu) per 100 ml marine or estuarine water in a single sample. NRDC considers all reported samples individually (without averaging) when calculating the percent exceedance rates in this analysis. This includes duplicate samples and reported samples taken outside the official beach season, if any.

The beaches with the highest percent exceedance rates of the BAV in 2013 were Hilton Beach in Newport News County (43%), Fairview Beach in King George County (27%), Huntington Beach in Newport News County (18%), Sea Gate Beach in Virginia Beach County (16%), and King/Lincoln Park Beach in Newport News County (14%).

The United States Geological Survey maintains a website, USGS Water Resources of Virginia. This site is a valuable source of information including current projects, online reports, publications, maps, real-time water conditions, and educational outreach material for teachers and students.

Virginia Sea Grant also provides some information on water quality.

Storm Drains and Sewage Outfalls

Information on the location and number of storm drains or sewage outfalls in Virginia is not directly available online, but general stormwater information can be obtained from the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) and the Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR).

Information concerning storm drains and sewage outfalls is also available through the Virginia DEQ Office of Water Quality Assessment at (804) 698-4026.

Virginia has a sewage outfall and a dredge material dump site off of Virginia Beach, another dredged material dump site off of Fisherman's Island, and a fish waste dump site off of Hog Island.[1]

Portions of the Rudee Inlet watershed including Lake Rudee, Lake Wesley, and Owl Creek were identified in Virginia’s 2014 Water Quality Assessment & Integrated Report as impaired due to violations of the State’s water quality standards for Enterococci and Fecal Coliform and do not support the Designated Uses of “Primary Contact (recreational or swimming)” and “Shellfishing”. In addition, Lake Wesley and Owl Creek do not meet the State’s water quality standard for Dissolved Oxygen and do not support the “Aquatic Life” Designated Use. Virginia agencies are working to identify sources of bacteria and will determine the pollutant cause of the Aquatic Life impairments as well as identify sources of this pollutant through a weight of evidence approach. Reductions and TMDLs (Total Maximum Daily Loads) for the causes of the impairments will be developed during the water quality study process.

A federal budget bill approved in November 2005 included $8.5 million to build an ocean outfall pipeline at 79th Street in Virginia Beach and replace 21 stainless steel manhole covers that corroded after being installed in outfall pipelines at 42nd and 16th streets. The 79th Street outfall will carry storm drain flows through an underground pipeline extending nearly 2,000 feet offshore, rather than conveying the water across the beach, which causes erosion. The outfall project was expected to begin in Spring 2006.

Information on the Army Corps of Engineers Norfolk District website indicates:

The 42nd Street pump station pumps stormwater from the oceanfront area between 28th Street and 55th Street through four 48-inch concrete outfall pipes, which terminate at the outfall structure approximately 2,000 feet offshore. Manhole lids along the pipelines are in need of replacement because sand has entered the pipes through underwater openings at the manholes. As a result, the accumulated sand has blocked portions of the pipelines. The work will seal the manholes and clear the pipes of the accumulated sand. This will assure continued effective operation of the pump station and ocean outfalls, which is critical to prevent flooding from rainfall in the oceanfront area.

The City of Virginia Beach has the following information about North Beach Drainage Improvements and other stormwater projects on their Public Works website:

Minor storm events cause flooding, and major rainfall events render Atlantic Avenue impassible for long periods of time. Atlantic Avenue is an important urban arterial road that has no natural means of positive drainage and relies on an old, 15-inch gravity storm system leading to 6 small pump stations. Without this project, flooding of Atlantic Avenue will continue to occur during moderate to heavy rainfall events. The benefits of the proposed project include:

  • Providing a storm drain system which will alleviate significant flooding on Atlantic Avenue and the surrounding areas.
  • Making Atlantic Avenue safer during rainfall events.
  • Providing an outlet for storm water trapped by natural topography.
  • Significantly increasing the street’s capacity for removing storm water.
  • Alleviating structural flooding on and adjacent to Atlantic Avenue.
  • Providing emergency power to pump out storm water, especially from hurricanes which can leave the area without electricity for days.

The project includes the construction of a new storm water pump station, ocean outfall, and collector system. The pump station will be located in the Atlantic Avenue median south of 61st Street and will be capable of pumping approximately 45,000 gpm. The pump station will discharge to a new ocean outfall consisting of a single 48-inch force main extending approximately 1,200 feet from the primary sand dune. The collector system will be constructed along Atlantic Avenue from 55th Street to 61st Street and is planned to connect to the beachfront interceptor along 55th Street with a 48-inch storm drain. The existing small pump station at 63 ½ Street will be evaluated for discharging to the new 61st Street pump station.

A Tyson Foods chicken processing plant on Virginia's Eastern Shore was fined in early 2005 for wastewater spills in May and July 2004. The May spill involved wastewater spilling from an earthen holding pond into a nearby stream and slaughterhouse wastes seeping into the ground. Regulators have also noticed high levels of copper in Tyson's discharges. The receiving water for Tyson's discharges, Sandy Bottom Branch, is classified as "impaired" by the state because of high concentrations of copper and phosphorous.

Governor Timothy Kaine announced in December 2006 that he would introduce legislation authorizing $250 million in bonds to upgrade sewage treatment plants throughout the Chesapeake Bay watershed. The bonds will provide funds to share the costs with localities for installing technologies that will reduce nutrient pollution discharged into Virginia waters. The sewage treatment plant upgrades made possible by these funds will prevent an estimated four million pounds of nitrogen compounds from entering Virginia's rivers that flow into the Bay.

A proposed program to allow the use of treated wastewater for irrigation, industrial cooling, livestock quenching, dust control, fire protection, car washing, street cleaning and office toilet flushing was unanimously approved by the State Water Control Board in March 2007.

Nonpoint source pollution is a significant cause of degradation of state waters, including the Chesapeake Bay, and is addressed in Water Quality Improvement Fund Guidelines for FY 1999-2000. There are two distinct program regions. The Chesapeake Bay Watershed is comprised of the Shenandoah-Potomac river basins and the lower bay tributaries, which include the James, York and Rappahannock rivers as well as the eastern and western coastal basins. All other river basins in the state comprise the Southern Rivers Watershed.

The Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR) administers nonpoint source grants. WQIF funds are provided, in accordance with the guidelines, to help stimulate nonpoint source pollution reduction through the Virginia Agricultural Best Management Practices Cost-share Program and water quality improvement projects within the regions listed above. As well as financial assistance, DCR staff provides technical assistance.

In 2001, Virginia received full approval of its Coastal Nonpoint Pollution Control Program from NOAA and EPA. This approval made Virginia eligible to retain full funding under the Coastal Zone Management Act and Section 319 of the Clean Water Act. Following are some of the projects, carried out in part with funding from the Coastal Program that contributed to the approval of Virginia's NPS Program:

  • A series of workshops on the proper use of irrigation systems and development of informational material on irrigation best management practices
  • Development of a web-enabled database for use by local government to track erosion & sediment control activities; development of a model local stormwater ordinance; and an economic evaluation of incorporating BMPs into site design
  • Development of shorelands planning protocol for use by local governments to enhance planning capabilities for areas adjacent to shorelands
  • A statistical analysis of the impact of channelization activities and dams in Tidewater Virginia on instream & riparian habitat
  • A plasticulture guidebook for local government and farmers recommending practices to protect water quality for operations using plastic mulch
  • Development of the Virginia Clean Marina Program to provide technical assistance to marinas and recreational boaters.

The Coastal Nonpoint Program is described on the Department of Conservation and Recreation's website and also on DEQ's website.

The Virginia Department of Health regulates shoreline use of septic or other on-site domestic waste systems. Their website provides access to Local Health Districts.

The 2006 Virginia Coastal Assessment raises the issue of the impact of recent regulation changes to the use of septic systems that have facilitated coastal population growth and associated coastal impacts.

"Land use change in the coastal zone is of concern especially where wastewater infrastructure is not present. As the fastest-growing coastal jurisdictions are rural and lack central wastewater infrastructure, growth management has historically been achieved through a parcel’s capacity for onsite treatment. In 2000, the Virginia Department of Health’s Onsite Sewage Disposal Standards (OSDS) were changed to allow engineered septic systems that do not rely on the soil as a treatment medium. This change has removed a limiting factor in the local government’s ability to anticipate, plan for and manage growth, opening previously undevelopable coastal land to development. From 2000-2005, jurisdictions within the Middle Peninsula Planning District have seen the installation or permitting of permitted 1,200 new engineered septic systems. This change also impacts wetlands, as OSDS are exempt from the Non-Tidal Wetlands Act."

Boating Waste

The Department of Environmental Quality is considering a ban on the discharge of treated sewage from boats in Broad Bay, Lynnhaven Bay and Linkhorn Bay by the end of 2006. The discharge of raw sewage has never been allowed, but sewage treated with chemicals has previously been permitted. This practice has apparently not been sufficient to keep the water clean.

Virginia Beach has a program where you can get a free pump-out service. Call (757) 460-4253 to schedule an appointment.

Water Quality Contact (Runoff and Outfalls)

Todd Janeski
Coastal Nonpoint Source Pollution Program Manager
(804) 371-8984

Perception of Causes

Samples taken throughout Virginia Beach have shown that more than three-quarters of the bacteria present in the water at normal levels were linked to birds, according to a 2005 study led by Charles Hagedorn III, a professor of environmental microbiology at Virginia Tech.

The project summary from that report states:

The goal in 2005 was assess in detail the possible sources of fecal contamination at Virginia’s public beaches that experienced frequent swimming advisories in 2004, and to evaluate each beach with respect to features or sources that might contribute to fecal pollution in the water. Those beaches that the 2004 project results indicated were problematic (7 of 16 total) included Anderson, Buckroe, Fairview, Hilton, Huntington, King-Lincoln, and Norfolk. All seven beaches were damaged by Hurricane Isabel in September 2003, and major beach restoration activities occurred throughout 2004 and into 2005 at most of damaged beaches. It was anticipated that project results from 2004 might not have much bearing on 2005 at a few of the beaches (e.g., Buckroe and Norfolk) since the shape of those beaches was changed by the restoration projects. Six of the seven beaches (excluding Fairview) were evaluated in 2005 by sampling twice a month (first and third weeks) for six months (April through September, 12 total samplings) at multiple locations per beach; a grid-sampling system was employed in August at four beaches (Anderson, Hilton, Huntington, and King-Lincoln) to determine if the fecal pollution at each beach originated from any particular direction; and split-samples were collected in August at nine beaches with VDH personnel and monitoring was performed both at the labs that VDH used and at VIMS (by Dr. Hagedorn) to cross-check and validate the results. The grid system was not used at Buckroe and Norfolk as these beaches had no posted advisories by August (and had none for the entire 2005 season). Fairview was excluded from the bi-weekly sampling as no beach improvements had been made, and was evaluated by having the VDH-Division of Shellfish Sanitation (DSS) lab in White Stone send the Enterococcus cultures from any sample that exceeded standards to Dr. Hagedorn’s lab at Virginia Tech for source tracking analysis.

Virginia’s beaches were generally in better condition in 2005 than they had been in 2004, and the VDH sampling in 2005 resulted in fewer total swimming advisories. For example, the seven beaches designated as problematic by the 2004 results had 26 posted advisories in 2004 as compared to 13 advisories (50.0% fewer) in 2005. Microbial Source Tracking (MST) was used to classify isolates of Enterococcus as being from human, bird, dog, or wildlife sources, and fluorometry (detection of optical brighteners in detergents from sewers and septic drainfields) was employed as a chemical method to differentiate between human and non-human sources of pollution. Based on the 2004 results that human sources of pollution were present at several beaches, investigations by officials from Hampton, Newport News, and Hampton Roads Sanitation District identified probable sources of the pollution and took steps to eliminate the problems. Sampling in 2005 confirmed the success of these efforts (reduction in the level of pollution from human sources) and demonstrated improved water quality conditions at beaches where post-hurricane restoration projects were undertaken. A direction could be assigned to the pollution at three of the four beaches where the grid system was employed, and the cross-validation monitoring results from the labs used by VDH and Dr. Hagedorn’s results from VIMS were in agreement. For remaining nine beaches that were not examined in detail in 2005, seven had no advisories over the summer and the remaining two had only three advisories combined.

The 2006 report's project summary states:

Virginia’s beaches were in better condition in 2006 than they had been in 2005 or 2004, and the VDH sampling in 2006 resulted in fewer total health advisories. Only three beaches had advisories in 2006 (Fairview, Huntington, and Virginia Beach). Combined, the three beaches had eight advisories and a total of 43 days under advisory, with Fairview accounting for 33 (77%) of the 43 days under advisory in 2006 (4 days for Huntington and 6 days for Virginia Beach). By comparison, in 2004 there were seven beaches with a total of 26 advisories and 145 days under advisory, while in 2005 there were 12 advisories at five beaches and 38 days under advisory. If Fairview is excluded, there is a clear trend towards fewer advisories and days under advisory from 2004 through 2006. This is due in part to beach restoration projects at many beaches that were damaged by Hurricane Isabel in September, 2003. Also, the VT staff deployed Microbial Source Tracking (MST) to classify isolates of Enterococcus as being from humans, birds, dogs, or wildlife sources, and fluorometry (detection of optical brighteners in detergents from sewers and septic drainfields) was added as a chemical method to differentiate between human and non-human sources of pollution. Based on the 2004 results that human sources of pollution were present at several beaches, investigations by officials from Hampton, Newport News, and Hampton Roads Sanitation District identified probable sources of the pollution and took steps to eliminate the problems. Sampling in 2005 and 2006 confirmed the success of these efforts (reduction in the level of pollution from human sources) and demonstrated improved water quality conditions at beaches where post-hurricane restoration projects were undertaken. Hilton, King-Lincoln, and Anderson Beaches all had advisories in 2004 and 2005, but none in 2006. This demonstrated the success of using MST to identify sources of fecal pollution in 2004, performing remediation to remove the origins of the pollution in 2005, and then following-up with MST in 2006 to prove that the sources found in 2004 and 2005 were no longer present in 2006. This is the first report where MST results indicated pollution from a particular source was present (human-origin sewage), the origin of the pollution was then located, steps were taken to eliminate the pollution, and subsequent MST results indicated the success of those remediation efforts. The 2007 project will focus on the three beaches that had advisories in 2006.

Fairview Beach is especially problematic as there was a persistent human signature at all three VDH sampling locations in 2006, and efforts to determine the sources of it will be a focus at Fairview Beach in 2007. It appears that precipitation is the cause of many of the problems at Fairview Beach, and a storm drain near the public swimming area is frequently the source of high levels of enterococci. Fairview Beach suffered yet another setback in 2006, much of the beach restoration work that had been performed in 2005 and 2006 was damaged by tropical storm Ernesto in September, 2006. For any advisories that occur in 2007, MST will be performed as rapidly as possible and, if human-origin isolates are found, then an immediate follow-up trip will occur so that intensive sampling can be performed in an effort to locate the sources of the human-origin pollution with a combination of MST and fluorometry.

For Huntington Beach, sampling will concentrate on the waters around a public boat ramp that appeared to be associated with the advisories at Huntington in 2006. The boat ramp is upstream from the swimming area and this may have helped pollution from the boat ramp area move into the swimming zone. Careful attention to the activities of boaters by officials to prevent waste dumping in the water should help improve water quality and eliminate advisories at this beach.

For Virginia Beach, the VT lab will continue to work with Hampton Roads Sanitation District (HRSD) and will employ MST in 2007 to determine the sources of enterococci in the discharges, outfalls, beach sand, and wet wells at 79th and 63rd Streets, the only two remaining open storm-water discharges at Virginia Beach (and the locations of all 3 advisories in 2006). A grid system will be used after major precipitation events to collect samples in the ocean in front of the outfalls. This grid system was successfully used by the VT staff at other beaches in 2005 to determine the direction of pollution in the water. Also, in 2007 the beach sand within the discharge areas will be sampled to determine if it is acting as a reservoir for enterococci where either re-growth or longer-term survival (that could impact beach water quality) might occur.

Chesapeake Bay, Rivers and Steams

Much of the effort to improve water quality in the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries is now focused on nonpoint source pollution. Nonpoint source pollution is reduced by application of best management practices including erosion and sediment controls, nutrient and pesticide management, and riparian buffer restoration. Virginia has active incentive and regulatory programs focused on implementation of best management practices. The Commonwealth uses water quality monitoring data, land use inventories, animal density data, and other information to assess watersheds for nonpoint source pollution control efforts. At present most of the coastal zone, outside of the undeveloped portions of the upper York River watershed, are ranked as high or medium priorities for nonpoint source pollution control. This reflects the potential for pollution created by development in the "urban crescent" and the prevalence of agricultural nutrient use on the Middle Peninsula, Northern Neck, and Eastern Shore.[2]

The Department of Conservation and Recreation's Chesapeake Bay Local Assistance Program staff addresses the impact of land use on waters that feed the Chesapeake Bay. Integral to the staff's mission is participation in the multi-jurisdictional Chesapeake Bay Program and implementation of the Virginia's Chesapeake Bay Preservation Act and the associated regulations.

In July 2011 the Washington Post reported:

"This year’s Chesapeake Bay dead zone covers a third of the bay, stretching from the Baltimore Harbor to the bay’s mid-channel region in the Potomac River, about 83 miles, when it was last measured in late June. It has since expanded beyond the Potomac into Virginia, officials said."

Polluted rain water draining into the Chesapeake Bay caused the health of the Bay to decline in 2010, according to an independent scientific analysis released in April 2011 by the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science. The bay scored a C-minus on the center’s annual EcoCheck report card, down from a C the year before — the first decline since 2003. The runoff was affected by natural forces and human activities such as farming and urban and suburban activities, the researchers said.

An Associated Press story in June 2008 reported that about 1,100 miles of Virginia's rivers and streams have been added to the state's list of polluted waters in the last two years, bringing the total to 10,600 miles, according to state environmental regulators. The state Department of Environmental Quality released its 2008 water quality report, which listed about 40 percent of the state's waters as polluted. All of the major rivers, as well as the Chesapeake Bay, had "some impairment," according to DEQ spokesman Bill Hayden. About one-third of Virginia's watersheds are assessed every two years. The agency has analyzed 95 percent of Virginia's watersheds.

The agency said the state's polluted waters-which include rivers, lakes and estuaries-require a total of 1,677 cleanup plans, known as Total Maximum Daily Loads (TMDLs). The DEQ also added 3,300 acres of lakes to the impaired list, bringing the total in that category to 94,000 acres. In addition, 2,200 square miles of estuaries are listed as impaired. The DEQ said more than half of the new listings were polluted by excess bacteria. Low-oxygen levels accounted for 18 percent of the listings. DEQ's Water Quality Reports now has links to the 2012 305(b)/303(d) Integrated Report as well as previous reports.

New rules endorsed by the State Water Control Board in October 2005 will force scores of sewage treatment plants and industrial facilities in the Shenandoah-Potomac Basin, the Rappahannock River region and the Eastern Shore to reduce their discharges of nitrogen compounds and other nutrients. Similar rules for facilities along the James and York Rivers were expected to be enacted in late November 2005.

Virginia's goal is to reduce nitrogen emissions to Chesapeake Bay by about 24 million pounds per year. It is estimated that improving wastewater plants will achieve about 1/3 of that reduction. Increased efforts to limit the runoff of manure and fertilizer from farm fields will also be needed. The Department of Conservation and Recreation estimates that a 92% participation rate in DCR's voluntary cleanup program (the current participation rate is 30%) will be necessary to achieve nitrogen reduction goals.

Despite efforts to identify and address point and non-point sources of water pollution, Virginia still has serious water quality problems in its inland bays and waterways. Following are excerpts from an editorial that appeared in the Hampton Roads, VA Daily Press on April 2, 2004.

"Virginia is dead last among states in spending on the environment and conservation. Behind Mississippi. Behind Arkansas. Behind states that have less wealth and, Virginians might proudly point out, less at stake than the commonwealth's fabulous forests and vistas, rivers and bays.

And lack of will. Virginia has failed, decade in and decade out, governor in and governor out, General Assembly session after General Assembly session, to muster the courage for some of the tough actions that would stop and reverse the damage already done to the environment. It is among the bay states that haven't imposed limits on the nitrogen that sewage treatment plants and factories can discharge, feeding a nutrient overload that deprives the water of oxygen and life. It has persisted in the delusion that voluntary efforts will suffice and has been slow to respond when they didn't.

The state is working toward nitrogen limits, but it will be two years before they're in place. It's absurd that, so many years after signing a pledge to clean up the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries, Virginia still hasn't taken this obvious step. Yes, it will be expensive, but Maryland, which is taking a more aggressive approach, is suggesting one way to raise money. Gov. Robert Ehrlich is trying to win approval of a $2.50 per month "flush tax," added to sewer bills to fund sewage treatment plant upgrades to reduce nitrogen.

Virginia hasn't made environmental stewardship a priority in other ways. It still lets combined sewer systems, like the one in Richmond, dump raw sewage into rivers. The General Assembly... does not commit enough money to reducing runoff of animal waste and chemicals from farmland. And reluctant, perhaps, to weigh the pig it is underfeeding, it refuses to come up with the money for adequate monitoring (the monitoring budget only stretches to cover one-fourth of the state's waterways). No one still believes that Virginia will live up to the promises it made to bay cleanup, which will leave it to the federal government to take over the job."[3]

An opinion piece by Robert G. Burnley, Director of the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality, appeared in the Fauquier Times-Democrat on December 6, 2005. It stated, in part:

"Reducing the amount of excess nutrients entering the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries is crucial to restoring the health of those waterways and keeping Virginia's economy and the culture of the Bay area strong.

New regulations passed by the State Water Control Board in September and November 2005 give DEQ the authority to issue permits that set nutrient discharge limits for wastewater treatment plants. These facilities are called point sources -- fixed locations (such as a pipe from a plant) from which pollutants are emptied into waterways. The regulations include nutrient discharge limits for the watersheds of the Potomac-Shenandoah River, Rappahannock River, Eastern Shore, James River and York River.

While reductions from all nutrient pollution sources are critical to achieving water quality goals, nutrient reductions from point sources such as municipal and industrial wastewater treatment plants are highly reliable, cost-effective, measurable and enforceable, and provide immediate water quality benefits.

To meet these new limits, some wastewater treatment plants will need to upgrade their nutrient reduction technologies or build new facilities. The current estimate for upgrading plants that are significant dischargers of nutrients is $1.2 billion, and Virginia has two funding sources available to assist localities.

Virginia's Water Quality Improvement Fund has $65.7 million available in grants during the state's 2006 fiscal year, which started July 1, 2005. Depending on the financial need of localities, the grants may cover 35 percent to 75 percent of the total cost of the upgrades. This fund annually receives 10 percent of Virginia's budget surplus, and the General Assembly added another $50 million this year to reduce point source pollution.

In December, the water board will review requests of $119.7 million from the Virginia Clean Water Revolving Loan Fund to support projects that will involve nutrient reduction efforts. Money for the fund comes from the state and federal governments and loan repayments. Typically the loans are at least 1 percent below the market rate, and zero interest loans are available for financially strained localities. If the board approves the latest loan requests of the Revolving Loan Fund, Virginia will make about $185 million available to help reduce nutrients this year. Localities may apply to both the Water Quality Improvement Fund and the Revolving Loan Fund.

Virginians have depended on the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries for generations to provide fish, oysters and crabs for food, recreational opportunities and jobs to support our families. However, the future of these waterways and a part of our coastal culture and economy is in jeopardy. Virginia and other Bay states must act now to preserve one of the nation's greatest natural and economic resources, and the Commonwealth's point source nutrient reduction effort is a significant step in the right direction."

Shortly after the above article appeared, Gov. Mark Warner announced that he was proposing record spending of more than $200 million in his final two-year budget to help clean up Chesapeake Bay. The money would primarily go to the state fund for sewage plant improvements.

A survey in 2004 conducted by the Chesapeake Bay Foundation indicated that 63% of registered Virginia voters would pay $1 more per week to help clean up Chesapeake Bay. The foundation is expected to use the survey to urge passage of a $1-per-week "flush tax." Such a tax would generate an estimated $160 million a year, to pay for anti-pollution improvements at more than 100 sewage treatment plants that discharge into state waters, including many in Hampton Roads and on the Eastern Shore.

Following are excerpts from an article appearing on on March 2, 2005 by Ann Jennings of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation:

"...nearly 7,000 miles of Virginia rivers and streams are so polluted that they are no longer "fishable or swimmable by Clean Water Act standards... The "dirty waters" list includes the entire portion of the Chesapeake Bay in Virginia and the tidal portions of the James, York, Rappahannock and Potomac Rivers... The widespread consensus among government and bay scientists is that nitrogen pollution, chiefly from local sewage treatment plants and farm runoff, is the most serious problem... Modernizing sewage treatment plants with readily available technology and broadly implementing farm conservation practices will dramatically reduce4 this pollution... Virginia has a growing water pollution crises that will only get worse and more expensive to fix if the state doesn't take meaningful action now... Virginia is under a legal mandate to clean up the bay and its rivers by 2010; if we fail, the federal government will take action, possibly including sanctions... As a signatory to the regional Chesapeake 2000 Agreement, Virginia has committed to reducing annual nitrogen pollution by 28 million pounds by 2010."

Summer of 2005 was a record-setting year for dead zones (oxygen-poor areas where aquatic life can't live) in Chesapeake Bay. On average, from June through September, 5.1% of the water in the bay's deep channel contained oxygen concentrations of 0.2 parts per million or less. Thirty percent of the bay's deep channel contained less than 5 parts per million of oxygen, which is the lower limit that can sustain striped bass, white perch and American shad. The oxygen-deficient water stretched 125 miles from the Baltimore-Annapolis area to the mouth of the New York River.

Factors contributing to the record-setting dead zone included heavy spring rainfall (which flushed sewage, fertilizers and animal waste into the Bay), hot summer temperatures, and the lowest mean wind speeds recorded since the mid-1980s.

In September 2007, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation (CBF) released a report Bad Waters: Dead Zones, Algal Blooms, and Fish Kills in the Chesapeake Bay Region in 2007. The report found:

  • Blooms of often harmful, toxic algae were reported from Baltimore to Hampton Roads, often accompanied by dangerously low levels of life-sustaining dissolved oxygen.
  • In Maryland, from June to early August there were over 45 fish kills due to algae or oxygen-deprived dead zones. Some were small—others were as devastating as 26,000 dead in Marley Creek in northern Anne Arundel County.
  • Along the Maryland/Virginia border, an algal bloom lasted for more than two months on the Potomac River, eventually killing over 300,000 fish.
  • For the second time in three years, young-of-the-year smallmouth bass in the Susquehanna and Juniata river basins exhibited infections due to high levels of the bacteria Flavobacterium.
  • Fish kills of smallmouth bass and redbreast sunfish reported for the last four years in the Shenandoah River system have now jumped to another watershed: the upper James and its beautiful Cowpasture and Maury River tributaries.

For CBF's 2008 State of the Bay Report the health index remained at 28, an unacceptable "D" grade, still impaired and far from the fishable and swimmable standard. The annual State of the Bay report is a comprehensive measure of the Bay's health. For the report, CBF evaluates 13 indicators: oysters, shad, crabs, striped bass (rockfish), underwater grasses, wetlands, forested buffers, resource lands, toxics, water clarity, dissolved oxygen, and phosphorus and nitrogen pollution. CBF scientists compile and examine the best available historical and up-to-date information for each indicator and assign it an index score and letter grade. Taken together, these indicators offer an assessment of Bay health. For 2009 CBF released Bad Waters: The Impact on Human Health in the Chesapeake Bay Region. The 2010 State of the Bay Report showed a health index of 31. In 2014, the index was 32 (Grade of D+).

Long-stalled efforts to clean up Chesapeake Bay got a ray of hope in May 2009, when President Barack Obama directed the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to take charge of a new federal effort and to exercise its full authority under the Clean Water Act. The order calls for better agricultural practices and the development of a strategy to deal with threats from climate change. Meanwhile, substantial sums of new money are flowing to restoration efforts, including $891 million from the Recovery and Reinvestment Act for upgrading wastewater treatment plants.

Another hopeful sign is the Chesapeake Bay Foundation's Oyster Restoration Centers. Oysters filter algae, sediment, and other pollutants. Oyster reefs also provide habitat for fish, crabs, and other Bay organisms. The Bay's native oyster population has been estimated at as low as one percent of historic levels, making restoration critical to help improve the Bay’s water quality and increase its economic viability. In support of re-establishing this keystone species, CBF has established three facilities devoted to restoration of Crassostrea virginica. The Virginia Oyster Restoration Center (VAORC) in Gloucester Point operates a small scale commercial oyster farm to demonstrate the commercial feasibility of oyster aquaculture to watermen and other entrepreneurs. The VAORC is also the homeport of the innovative oyster restoration vessel Chesapeake Gold, used for the aquaculture program and for assisting partners with restoration and research projects. Read more about this here (page 24).

Marine Debris

Virginia's 2006 Coastal Assessment characterized the problem of Marine Debris this way:

According to data from the International Coastal Cleanup program conducted annually in Virginia by Clean Virginia Waterways at Longwood University, land-based activities continue to generate approximately 80% of the marine debris items, while ocean-based sources account for 6% of items collected. This is consistent with national marine debris trends. The impacts of marine debris in Virginia continue to be aesthetic, economic and tourism impacts of debris on beaches and other recreational areas. Other impacts of concern in Virginia are potential effects on human health (especially from combined sewer overflows), wildlife and their habitat, and boating safety.

In Virginia, almost all land-based debris is attributed to shoreline recreational activities. Items such as cigarette filters, beverage cans and bottles, food containers and wrappers, and balloons are among the top ten most commonly found items. While mass releases of balloons are illegal in Virginia, balloon debris is found more frequently on beaches than in and around other state waterways. Since balloon debris can resemble jellyfish, they are a potential ingestion hazard to wildlife when mistaken for prey. Ribbons and strings on balloons also present an entanglement risk. Cigarette filters ranked as the second most common items found on beaches in Virginia’s 2004 Coastal Cleanup. Smoking-related debris accounted for 12% of items collected in 2004 and 16% in the 2001 cleanup. Cigarette litter, often the result of roadway litter washing into waterways, represents a specific marine debris hazard in that it is both floatable and toxic. Other potential sources of land-based debris are combined sewer overflows and storm runoff. Severe storm events can cause a massive influx of debris into Virginia’s waterways, wetlands and coastal areas. The Virginia Department of Emergency Management reports that 20 million cubic yards of debris were generated during Hurricane Isabel, and debris removal costs reached $179 million. In such storm events, modern building materials and household goods such as asphalt roofing tile, vinyl siding and propane tanks, generate a high volume of debris that is relatively less biodegradable and more expensive to remove than those used more commonly in the past.


While only 6% of debris items found in the 2004 Coastal Cleanup were attributed to ocean-based activity, these items are often large and present direct risks to wildlife and boating safety. Derelict gear, defined as rope, fishing nets and other gear discarded or lost from vessels, has attracted concern as an entanglement hazard to boats and wildlife. Two sources of derelict gear of concern in Virginia’s waters are that of unattended and unmarked or “ghost” crab pots and discarded or abandoned clam netting.

Public Education

Information on watersheds, nonpoint source pollution and ways to help is available from the DCR's Soil and Water Conservation Program.

The Virginia Department of Health Beach Monitoring website has links to a "Safely Enjoying Virginia's Waters" brochure in English and Spanish. There are also links to information on Harmful Algal Blooms, Pfiesteria and Vibrio. More on Vibrio.

The Virginia Department of Environmental Quality (VDEQ) website includes a new geographic environmental mapping system that allows visitors to pinpoint specific areas around the state for more detail on environmental conditions.

Other environmental education information is available on VDEQ's website.

Local Watershed Management Planning in Virginia, A Community Water Quality Approach and Healthy Waters, a New Ecological Approach to Identifying and Protecting Healthy Waters in Virginia are useful publications for understanding the sources of water pollution in Virginia and how proper planning can help mitigate these issues.

General Reference Documents and Websites

EPA has compiled several NPS (Nonpoint Source) Outreach Products that are a selection of television, radio, and print products on nonpoint source pollution that have been developed by various agencies and organizations around the country. They are good examples of outreach in the mass media. Also see What You Can Do.

NOAA, in partnership with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, International City/County Management Association and Rhode Island Sea Grant, has released an interagency guide that adapts smart growth principles to the unique needs of coastal and waterfront communities. Smart Growth for Coastal and Waterfront Communities builds on existing smart growth principles to offer 10 coastal and waterfront-specific guidelines that help manage development while balancing environmental, economic, and quality of life issues.


  1. USEPA website:
  2. Virginia Coastal Program, Department of Environmental Quality, State of Virginia's Coast, 2001.

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