In 2007, the Advisory Committee published Managing Page’s Water And Its Future, better known as the Water Futures Report. This document outlines the steps needed to develop and implement a comprehensive watershed management plan for Page County.
Managing Page County’s Water… and it’s Future “Taking Care of Our Water”
Water has played a central role in the history of Page County and the Shenandoah Valley. Through drought and flood, water has shaped the landscape and lives of those fortunate to call the County home. Water also is fundamental to the overall health and quality of life in Page County. Clean, abundant supplies of water are a basic right and an essential resource for our children and their future.
But today, land use pressures threaten the health of our waterways and drinking water. In listing the Shenandoah as one of America’s ten most endangered rivers (2006), American Rivers said the River is a victim of its own popularity. As population soars and farmland is replaced by development, the River is under siege from polluted runoff (non-point source pollution) and over-burdened sewage treatment facilities and water supplies.
In a 1992 Evaluation of Household Water Quality, Virginia Tech found that 22% of the ground water wells tested in Page County were contaminated with fecal coliform bacteria. Recently, the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality found that 73% of the 198 river miles monitored in Page County, do not meet State standards and are designated as impaired waters.
State officials estimate it could cost at least $4.8 million to address bacteria contamination in Mill Creek alone. The town of Luray has budgeted $4.6 million on the new water treatment plant, a cost borne by water users. Individual homeowners pay approximately $1,000 for private disinfection systems and an average of $10,000 to replace a contaminated well. Failure to protect our waters could lead to increased state and federal mandates, regulations and substantially higher costs.
If we act now, we can use effective water resource management to protect our valuable water resources and greatly reduce the cost of future contamination and pollution. The Page County Water Quality Advisory Committee, appointed by the Board of Supervisors, drafted a comprehensive approach to address non-point source pollution that threatens our water quality. The program is comprised of three inter-connected elements:
1) Education and outreach for County residents of all ages to increase the understanding of our water resources and inspire increased stewardship;
2) Watershed management plans to inform and guide land use decisions from the perspective of water resources; first for Mill Creek, a priority watershed due to its designation as an impaired stream under the Clean Water Act, and then for all of the other watersheds in Page County.
3) Land use practices, both voluntary and required, to protect water resources and the rights of all local property owners.
Watershed management plans are a tool to take us from where we are today (dealing with impaired water quality) to where we want to be in the future (blessed by healthy rivers and ground water). They are designed to be dynamic, working plans, which can incorporate new information and evolving local issues as brought forth by local elected officials and citizens. With the active participation of all residents, watershed management plans can help shape and protect the future of Page County and its water resources.
Water has played a central role in the history of Page County and the Shenandoah Valley. Through drought and flood, water has shaped the physical landscape and the lives of those fortunate enough to call the County home. The Shenandoah River and the County’s creeks and runs are treasured for fishing, boating, wildlife and the rich cultural traditions sustained by water.
Water is fundamental to the overall health and quality of life in Page County, a foundation for our community, economy and environment. Clean, abundant supplies of water are a basic right and an essential resource for our children and their future.
Recognized as one of the Valley’s leaders in water resource management, Page County Water Quality Advisory Committee has designed a comprehensive water resource approach to improve and protect the water resources of the County. As outlined in this paper entitled, “Managing Page’s Water and its Future: Taking Care of Our Water,” the program will ensure that water resources remain the lifeblood of our community. This program draws from guidance provided by the Chesapeake Bay Program’s Chesapeake 2000 Agreement, Virginia’s Shenandoah and Potomac Tributary Strategy, the Shenandoah Valley Water Resources Strategic Plan, and the Page County Comprehensive Plan.
Today, land use pressures threaten the health of our waterways and wells. In listing the Shenandoah as one of America’s most endangered rivers in 2006, American Rivers stated that the River is a victim of its own popularity. As population soars and farmland is replaced by development, the River is threatened from polluted runoff and over-burdened sewage treatment and water supplies.
Of the 198 miles of streams monitored (of a total 248 miles) in Page County, 73% do not meet clean water quality standards (Virginia Department of Environmental Quality). Further, a 1992 study conducted by Virginia Tech reports that of 308 wells tested in Page County, 22 percent were contaminated by fecal coliform bacteria.*
Page County and its citizens cannot afford to lose their water resources. State officials estimate that it could cost at least $4.8 million to address bacteria contamination in Hawksbill and Mill Creeks. The town of Luray has budgeted 4.6 million for the new water treatment plant, a cost borne by water users. Individual homeowners pay approximately $1,000 for private disinfection systems and up to $10,000 to replace a contaminated well.
Failure to protect water resources could lead to increased state mandates and regulations. County taxpayers and public water users will end up paying for local water treatment and other improvement programs. We can reduce these costs if we act now to preserve water quality and protect it from future degradation
* Evaluation of Household Water Quality in Page County, Virginia, June 1992, Household Water Series 2, Department of Agricultural Engineering, Virginia Polytech Institute & State University, Blacksburg, Virginia, p. 12.
Why Manage Water
A reliable supply of clean water is essential to the economy of Page County, its quality of life and the future well-being of its citizens. Water resources also are key to sustaining the County’s unique natural and cultural values.
The County’s Comprehensive Plan envisions a future dependent on environmental health:
“To promote an environment conducive to maintaining a rural quality of life which enhances tourism and agriculture and protects natural and cultural assets while encouraging compatible business and residential growth to provide a higher standard of living for our citizens.”
Water is vital to this vision. Our County’s health depends on adequate water supplies – in terms of water quality and quantity. Water is critical to sustain the natural and cultural assets of Page County for the benefit of present and future generations.
When the Page County Board of Supervisors updated the Comprehensive Plan in July, 2007, officials paid special attention to the need to address water quality. The revised Plan contains this primary objective:
“Preserve and enhance the County’s environmental quality. Protect natural resources including soil, water, air, scenic view sheds and fragile ecosystems. Conduct a comprehensive examination of the County’s water resources and develop specific strategies to protect them. Educate and engage citizens in the environmental stewardship of natural resources and protection of watersheds.”
Unlike some municipalities in the Valley, Page County does not rely on the Shenandoah River for drinking water. Our drinking water comes from a variety of ground water sources. Luray derives its water from both ground water wells and natural springs. The towns of Shenandoah and Stanley obtain ground water from highly productive wells. Most Page County residents rely on ground water from drilled wells on private property, although some still make use of springs.
Protecting ground water requires the protection of surface water, due to the Karst (limestone) geology* in the Page Valley. The porous nature of limestone creates many interconnections between surface and ground water, leaving both water sources vulnerable to the impacts of land-use activities. What is poured onto or applied to the surface of the land directly and rapidly ends up in the water.
The greatest threat to water quality in Page County is from nonpoint source pollution*. Grease and oils from vehicles, fertilizer from homes and farms, failing septic systems, and manure from livestock and pets wash off the land, contaminating both rivers and ground water supplies.
Because point sources are closely regulated by state and federal agencies, the focus of watershed management is on controlling non-point sources of pollution which are currently unregulated.
The challenge in Page County is to focus on both water quality and water quantity within the drainage areas of streams, commonly referred to as watersheds*. A variety of land uses affect both surface and ground waters within the County’s watersheds. All the water in Page County flows into the South Fork of the Shenandoah River, therefore we are part of the larger Shenandoah/Potomac watershed.
Page County is required to protect its water quality under rules established by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and enforced by the Commonwealth of Virginia. The Virginia Department of Environmental Quality has designated a number of Page County streams as impaired under the Clean Water Act including portions of the South Fork of the Shenandoah River, Naked Creek, Cub Run, Mill Creek, Hawksbill Creek, Pass Run, Rocky Branch and Jeremy’s Run.
As a partner in the Chesapeake Bay Program and through the Chesapeake 2000 Agreement, the Commonwealth of Virginia has committed to “correct the nutrient and sediment-related problems in the Chesapeake Bay and its tidal tributaries” and to ”work with local governments…to develop and implement locally supported watershed management plans.” While Page County is situated upriver of the Bay, reduction of non-point source pollution in the Shenandoah River and its tributary streams is important to the overall restoration of the Chesapeake Bay and meeting the commitments of the Commonwealth. The use of watershed management plans to guide land use decisions is, in turn, a critical link in the Bay’s restoration and in protection of local water quality.
Comprehensive Water Resource Program
The Page County Board of Supervisors appointed the Water Quality Advisory Committee in 1997 to help the Board address the water quality requirements of state and federal agencies. The Committee was directed to collect water quality data, explore water-related issues throughout the County and provide recommendations for future actions by the Board of Supervisors in order for Page County to proactively manage water resources. The Board of Supervisors subsequently asked the Water Quality Advisory Committee to develop ways to protect water quality in both agricultural and residential areas.
To advance water resource management and explore the use of watershed planning, the Advisory Committee hosted a Community Watershed Dialogue in March 2005, with local, regional, state and federal partners. This forum engaged community leaders, landowners, farmers and developers to better understand the value of water resource management and the “why’s” and “how-to’s” of watershed planning to guide water resource management.
The Community Watershed Dialogue resulted in three recommendations to manage Page County’s water resources: 1) strengthen the Water Quality Advisory Committee with additional stakeholders to fully address water resources; 2) establish a county-wide program for water resource management; and 3) initiate a plan in a priority watershed to model responsible watershed management.
In response to these recommendations and, at the request of County Supervisors, the Page County Water Quality Advisory Committee designed a comprehensive program to improve and protect the water resources of the County. This program is comprised of three inter-related components:
1) Education and outreach for county residents of all ages to increase the understanding of our water resources and inspire increased stewardship.
2) Watershed management plans to inform and guide land use decisions from the perspective of water resources; first for Mill Creek, a priority watershed due to its designation as an impaired water under the Clean Water Act, and then all other watersheds in Page County.
3) Land use practices-both voluntary and required-to protect water resources and the rights of local property owners.
Public Education & Water Resources
The health of Page County’s water quality depends on the actions of all citizens. County residents can serve as ecological stewards of local natural resources through the careful management of the land and water on their property.
The Page County Water Quality Advisory Committee is engaged in or is planning the following education and public outreach activities:
- At the elementary school level, work with the Page County School Board to incorporate wise land use in the watershed curricula of the Virginia Standards of Learning (SOLs). Develop and offer water quality sample programs, projects, local field trips and other enrichment resources.
- At the high school level, work with the Page County School Board to offer student internships and independent study involving water resource issues and projects. This includes encouraging water-related projects, highlighting careers in the environmental field and participating in environmental events.
- Distribute the Page County Water Resources Primer to county residents through the Page County Department of Environmental Services, local businesses, new resident welcome packets and at community events.
- Host three public forums on water resource issues to inform and solicit guidance from local citizens on watershed planning. The first forum, the ‘Page County Water Gathering’ is scheduled September 30, 2007.
- Establish a Page County water quality website, at www.pagewaterquality.org, to inform the public about watershed planning, upcoming events, meetings, volunteer opportunities and additional information and resources
Education is a dynamic process and efforts to communicate the importance of protecting and preserving our water resources will continue to evolve. As more people get involved with the watershed management process, education opportunities will continue to arise.
Water quality, stream management, habitat restoration and the relationship between land use planning, the way we use the land, and healthy watersheds are components of this educational process.
Developing Watershed Management Plans
The protection and management of Page County’s water requires the preparation and use of watershed management plans. A watershed plan is a strategy for the future to protect both water quality and quantity. It is a valuable tool to aid elected officials in making informed and reasoned decisions to protect our watershed. It also is a resource to guide the everyday activities of citizens, thus assuring the right for clean water is passed on to future generations.
A watershed plan involves a comprehensive assessment to better understand the current health of each stream and its watershed, the issues and challenges regarding both water quality and quantity and recommendations to restore and protect our water resources.
Watershed management plans will be prepared for each of the six major watersheds in the County. These plans will include current land uses and management practices, projected development and other actions, important areas to conserve, best management practices (BMPs)* and land use requirements needed to properly manage the water resources.
A watershed plan will initially be prepared for Mill Creek, where the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation recently began work with local landowners and other stakeholders to create a Total Maximum Daily Load* (TMDL) Implementation Plan. Mill Creek is listed among impaired waters due to the presence of bacteria, generated by wildlife, pets, cattle and failing septic systems. Since voluntary corrective actions are needed to meet water quality standards, local landowners are key to the success of the plan.
The Mill Creek Watershed Management Plan will coordinate with the state’s mandate to decrease bacterial pollution. The Watershed Management Plan will address a broad range of water resource issues and needs. By anticipating future growth pressures, it will identify important areas to protect for water recharge and other ecological functions. Planners will work closely with local residents and other stakeholders to develop solutions for healthy, abundant water resources and for future economic growth, while retaining the rural heritage of the Valley.
With the Mill Creek Plan as a guide, a county-wide watershed management plan will then be prepared, focusing on the remaining watersheds in Page County.
The complete Page County Watershed Management Plan will aim to:
- Implement management strategies to enhance water quality, protect aquatic wildlife and decrease flooding. It will improve the health and safety of our streams and groundwater for drinking and recreational use.
- Reduce the amount of runoff pollution that reaches streams and ground water.
- Establish performance standards and, in some cases, specify actions needed to prevent or minimize the harmful effects of uncontrolled and untreated runoff.
Management Practices for Water Resources
Watershed management plans are a guide and the means to take us from where we are today (dealing with impaired water quality) to where we want to be in the future (blessed by healthy rivers and ground water). They are designed to be dynamic, working plans which can incorporate new information and evolving local issues. Water resource management will include a combination of voluntary best management practices (BMPs) often funded by government programs, cooperative agreements among agencies and landowners, educational materials targeted at specific landowners and recommended County codes and ordinances governing land use activities.
Voluntary management strategies may include:
- Stabilizing stream banks to stop erosion by planting native trees, shrubs and grasses.
- Installing fencing and alternative water sources to keep livestock out of wetlands and rivers.
- Creating specific sizes and types of plant buffers on sensitive portions of a creek to act as a filter for potential pollutants.
- Placing a conservation easement on waterfront buffers to permanently protect areas of valuable vegetative cover.
The Page County Watershed Management Plan also will be used in concert with the County’s Comprehensive Plan and its zoning ordinance and codes to guide land use decisions.
The County’s Board of Supervisors recognized this need in the revised Comprehensive Plan, adopted July 17, 2007. The new Plan directs the County to:
“Support watershed management planning and consider any watershed management plans that are adopted or endorsed by the Board of Supervisors as a factor in making land use decisions.” (p. 14)
“Coordinate land use policies, ordinances, and Watershed Management Plans, as appropriate, with the towns of Luray, Stanley, and Shenandoah.” (p.14)
Codes and ordinances guide land use activities in a number of ways to avoid pollution or other impacts on streams and other water bodies. Ordinances can be written to protect or improve water quality, ensure adequate stream flows for fish and wildlife, and restore both stream banks and channels. When designed to reduce the risk of property damage and increase public safety, codes and ordinances often reduce overall development costs and improve the quality of residential development.
Many water quality protection ordinances are required by state law. Local erosion and sediment control programs regulate the design and construction of building projects to reduce or eliminate runoff from land disturbance. A stormwater management ordinance protects water quality around developed areas by requiring systems to collect and slow runoff before it reaches streams.
The County decision makers may select from many other options, such as:
- Ordinances to reduce stormwater runoff by minimizing the land area disturbed during construction and reducing the amount of impervious surfaces, such as buildings, streets and parking lots. (Example: requiring a large parking lot to include gravel areas and flower beds to provide places where rainwater can filter through to the soil.)
- A stream (or riparian) buffer ordinance to prohibit specific land uses, such as a gas stations or feed lots within close proximity to open waterways, or to incorporate the maintenance or planting of riparian buffers along streams into construction design permits.
- A septic maintenance program to reduce ground water pollution from failing systems by requiring regular inspection and maintenance and/or when a property is sold.
- Revising the County code to ban the dumping of trash and debris in sinkholes, which introduces pollutants directly to the groundwater and wells many Page residents depend on for drinking water.
Together, voluntary and county measures will effectively resolve water quality problems and restore or maintain the water quality in Page County.
Looking forward, the Advisory Committee recommends establishing clear goals to assure clean, healthy, abundant water for future generations.
- Develop the skills and capacity in Page County to manage water resources and better inform local land use decisions, which could affect those resources.
- Balance water resource management with sustainable economic growth and other community needs in the County.
- Protect our water resources to support a sustainable local economy and our traditional economic sectors, notably tourism, recreation, farming and forestry.
- Instill a greater sense of stewardship in our citizenry and a greater awareness of the direct link between land use and clean water.
- Identify preventative measures to keep wastewater treatment plants from being flushed with or bypassed by floodwaters. These contaminated waters then flow straight to the river.
APPENDIX A: TECHNICAL TERMS AND DEFINITIONS
Best Management Practices – or BMPs, include a wide variety of activities – agricultural practices, buffer planting, stream bank restoration, land preservation and stormwater management in new residential areas. Federal and state funding programs aid many of these activities, especially on farmland. Various groups such as land trusts, homeowners associations, educational institutions and others also provide financial aid for the installation of BMPs.
Chesapeake 2000 Agreement – In June 2000, the Chesapeake Bay Program partners (including Virginia) adopted a Bay agreement intended to guide restoration activities through 2010. The partners have committed to “correct the nutrient and sediment-related problems in the Chesapeake Bay and its tidal tributaries” attributed primarily to non-point source pollution and to “work with local governments…to develop and implement locally supported watershed management plans.” While Page County is situated upriver of the Bay, reduction of non-point source pollution in the Shenandoah River and its tributary streams is important to the overall restoration of the Chesapeake Bay and meeting the commitments of the Commonwealth. The use of watershed management plans to guide land use decisions is, in turn, a critical link in the Bay’s restoration and in protection of local water quality.
Fecal Coliform Bacteria – When fecal coliform bacteria (FCB) are found in water, it indicates contamination from the fecal matter of animals or humans. FCBs provide a warning that water treatment systems may be failing. FCBs enter streams through direct discharge of waste from untreated human sewage, birds and mammals including pets, from agricultural and storm runoff. There may be an increased risk of waterborne gastroenteritis when levels are high.
Impaired waters – Under the federal Clean Water Act, rivers and streams that do not meet minimum water-quality standards are listed as impaired waters, with the specific pollutant degrading water quality, such as bacteria, listed as well. The following rivers and streams in Page County are currently listed as impaired waters: South Fork Shenandoah River, Naked Creek, Cub Run, Mill Creek, Hawksbill Creek, Pass Run, Rocky Branch, and Jeremy’s Run.
Karst geology– This landscape is riddled with underground drainages created by water flowing through soluble layers of bedrock, typically limestone. Sinkholes, caves and disappearing streams are characteristics of Karst areas. Water supplies in such regions are easily contaminated because pollutants can be carried through the Karst drainage systems to groundwater sources and then into wells. For example, a failing septic system in a Karst landscape can dump raw sewage directly into underground channels, where it can quickly pollute neighboring wells.
Nonpoint source pollution– This type of pollution cannot be attributed to a clearly identifiable physical location or defined discharge point. These diffuse pollutants, such as nutrients from fertilizer or sediment from disturbed land, are generated by various land uses, such as croplands, feedlots, lawns, parking lots and streets, and are washed into streams and groundwater. Nonpoint source pollution also includes nutrients deposited by air pollution or septic systems.
Point source pollution– This source of pollution can be attributed to a specific physical location—an identifiable, end-of-pipe source. The vast majority of point source discharges for nutrients come from wastewater treatment plants, although some come from industries.
Total Coliform Bacteria – according to the EPA, total coliforms are a group of closely related, mostly harmless bacteria that live in soil and water as well as the gut of animals. The extent to which total coliforms are present in the source water can indicate the general quality of that water and the likelihood that the water is fecally contaminated. Total coliforms are currently controlled in drinking water regulations because their presence above the standard indicates problems in treatment or in the distribution system. EPA requires all public water systems to monitor for total coliforms in distribution systems. If total coliforms are found, then the public water system must further analyze that total coliform-positive sample to determine if specific types of coliforms (i.e., fecal coliforms or E. coli) are present.
Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) – This defines the pollutant load that a river can handle without violating federal water-quality standards. The load is based on both point source and nonpoint source pollution. The US Environmental Protection Agency lists rivers and streams that do not meet these standards as impaired waters. The Agency requires the state to complete a TMDL study for each waterway listed as impaired, to determine the level and source of pollution. With this information, the state must prepare a TMDL Implementation Plan, to identify and quantify corrective actions (BMPs) to meet federal water-quality standards. These actions are voluntary.
Watershed – A drainage basin or river catchment, meaning the region of land whose water drains into a specified body of water. For example, all the surface water in Page County flows into the Shenandoah River.
 * All terms with an asterisk are defined in Appendix A