The Shenandoah River at the Millville Dam, viewed from the West Virginia State Route 9 Shenandoah River Bridge in Jefferson County.

CHARLES TOWN – Stormwater runoff and failing septic tanks in Jefferson County are significantly raising pollution in the Shenandoah River, according to water testing by the Blue Ridge Watershed Coalition.

Jefferson County is contributing to increasing pollution in the Shenandoah while surrounding jurisdictions are generating less, said John Maxey, a representative of the nonprofit that monitors and protects the Chesapeake Bay Watershed.

During a presentation for the watershed coalition, Maxey said that water testing showed the river is cleaner when it passes through Virginia, but then the river becomes markedly unhealthy when it flows by Jefferson County.

“We’re not doing our fair share in Jefferson County,” he said.

Nitrates, phosphates and coliform bacteria from local streets, farm fields and residential properties are generating most of the local contaminants reaching the river, according to a recently updated report by the coalition. “Understanding the source of contaminants is an important step in protecting the drinking water source for Charles Town and surrounding communities,” a summary of the report states.

About 14,000 residents of Jefferson County rely on the Shenandoah as their drinking water source, the report estimates.

Development continues in Jefferson County with homes served by septic tanks. The West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection estimates that one-quarter of the county’s septic systems in the Shenandoah River watershed are failing, according to the coalition’s report.

“Improperly functioning septic tanks contribute E. coli and other coliform bacteria to local waterways and negatively impact the health and safety of the watershed,” the report summary states. “To operate effectively, septic tanks also must be routinely pumped.”

When rainstorms hit, pollution running into the Shenandoah spikes, Maxey said. Evitts Run contributes large doses of coliform bacteria in the river, according to the coalition’s water testing. Watersheds in Shannondale off the Blue Ridge are also major pollution contributors.

Most contamination from those sources exceeds federal safety levels, Maxey said. If the water from those sources flowed into the ocean near sunbathing beaches, he maintained, those beaches would be shut down by health officials.

“It’s not considered safe,” he explained. “In fact, it could be considered dangerous.”

The watershed coalition offers recommendations for government agencies and for property owners.

Among the recommendations for government agencies: require better stormwater management for new development projects; support local source resource protection efforts; and undertake tree plantings and river cleanups.

Among the recommendations for property owners: properly maintain septic systems and use rain barrels and rain gardens to manage stormwater runoff.

Jefferson County has more than 3,200 septic tanks, according to Terry Fletcher, the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection’s communications director.

More refined water testing will be conducted to determine if the coliform contamination found is coming from animal or human waste, Maxey said. More water testing needs to be done to determine more precisely what contamination sources reaching the river, he said.

“We’re trying to use data and science to guide solutions in Jefferson County,” he said.

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