Good water quality means much more than having a nice place to swim. Virginia's streams, rivers, bays and coastal estuaries perform a long list of important functions that are critical to the state's economic and environmental health.
Why is This Important?
Clean water is essential to industrial and agricultural production and is a critical resource for the fishing and tourism industries. Clean water is a habitat for economically and ecologically important species; it is also necessary for the daily health and hygiene of every Virginian. Dirty water must be cleaned before being fit for most uses, incurring high costs for both public and private enterprise.
How is Virginia Doing?
The Chesapeake Bay is a particularly important water resource for the state, yet it has been in a beleaguered state for decades. The bay is plagued by agricultural and suburban runoff loading phosphorus and nitrogen into the water, which feed the algae and create dead zones that kill marine life. Since 1980, population along the watershed has grown by nearly 5 million, increasing the number of paved surfaces that feed polluted runoff into the Bay from parking lots, highways, and commercial and residential buildings.
Virginia has agreed to substantially reduce its contribution to the nitrogen, phosphorous, and sediment loads in the bay by 2025 by following strategies outlined in a recently adopted Watershed Implementation Plan. Already, nitrogen pollution from Virginia has fallen from a total of 68.1 million pounds in 2009 to 62.6 million pounds in 2011; discharges of phosphorus have also dropped -- from 8.7 million pounds in 2009 to 8.3 million pounds in 2011.Discharges into the Chesapeake Bay (pounds per year)
|2009 Baseline||2011 Progress||2013 Commitment||Watershed
|Total Suspended Solids||3,742,921,311||3,627,440,491||3,625,460,491||3,447,997,699||3,251,381,958|
|Source: Virginia Department of Environmental Quality, Watershed Implementation Plans|
Sediment pollution targets are also included in the Watershed Implementation Plan; in 2011, 3.6 trillion pounds of sediment made their way from Virginia sources into the Chesapeake Bay, with a plan goal of reducing that to 3.3 trillion pounds by 2025. It is hoped that progress toward all plan goals will further improve as point source regulations are fully implemented, non-point source funding increases, and targeting of best management practices expands.
Some reduction efforts are beginning to yield results. The Chesapeake Bay's adult population of blue crabs has increased substantially since 2008, when emergency management measures were put into place to address severe population declines. At 764 milion, the April 2012 blue crab population is triple the record low it reached in 2007 (255 million) -- and the largest since 1993.
Likewise, the number of impaired waterways throughout the Commonwealth that have been restored is slowly increasing. (Since some waterways have problems outside state control, progress in these areas may be measured as incremental improvements rather than as a wholesale shift in environmental status.)
What Influences Water Quality?
Water quality is degraded when toxic chemicals, biological waste, sediment, and excess nutrients (particularly nitrogen and phosphorous) flow into rivers, streams, wetlands, and coastal waters. Pollutants are categorized as coming from one of two sources: point sources, where the cause has a single known point of origin into state waters (such as a discharge pipe); and non-point sources, where pollutants come from diffuse origins, as with storm water runoff or groundwater. Runoff comes from farms, septic fields, paved surfaces, and lawns. Water can also be polluted from the air -- for example, from acid rain. Understandably, it is easier to control pollution from point sources than from non-point ones.
Point source discharges and some non-point sources are regulated under federal and state law. However, a significant number of non-point sources still fall under voluntary, incentive-based programs. Pollution can be limited at the source either by preventing pollution from the start -- for instance, encouraging homeowners and farmers to refrain from using certain chemicals and fertilizers -- or by cleaning up the contaminated water before it enters state flows.
The federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) makes states responsible for Clean Water Act regulations, so Virginia enforces these as well as state-generated water laws. Under the Clean Water Act, a body of water not meeting established quality standards is classified as "impaired." In 2012, approximately 12,145 miles of Virginia's streams and rivers were impaired -- an increase of 1,042 miles over the 2010 level (12,103 miles). However, the total impaired area for large, public-use lakes decreased from 96,511 acres in 2010 to 94,041 in 2012.
Informative state rankings on all aspects of water quality do not exist at this time. Cross-state comparisons must take into account the size of the economy, population, state hydrology, and pollutants coming in from other states or regions. However, states within the Chesapeake Bay watershed report annually on nitrogen, phosphorus, and sediment discharges into the Chesapeake Bay and its tributary rivers. Due to long-term joint agreements among these states to limit pollution, excess nutrient discharges into the Chesapeake Bay in recent years have been generally decreasing. (See table above.)
It is important to note that some water pollutants are not under Virginia's direct control. For example, the level of mercury in state waters is largely determined by mercury emissions that enter the atmosphere outside of the state, and even outside of the country.
What is the State's Role?
Virginia implements a variety of programs to reduce the pollutants that harm water quality through the Department of Environmental Quality, the Department of Conservation and Recreation, the Department of Forestry, and the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.
The Water Quality Improvement Fund (WQIF) provides state matching funds for point and non-point source projects that reduce nutrients and other pollutants flowing into Virginia's waters, including the Chesapeake Bay.
The state's choices about how to reduce pollution certainly affect how much it costs to achieve a given water quality standard or goal -- considerations that must try to balance pollution goals with the cost of doing business. However, there is no doubt that clean and vibrant waters will in the long term improve Virginia's economic condition and quality of life.
What Can Citizens Do?
Individuals and groups are strongly encouraged to be active participants in resource management. To learn more about Virginia's environment, stewardship and public participation opportunities, or partners engaged in conservation, you may also explore the following resources:
- Virginia Naturally (DCR's gateway to statewide environmental education, volunteer opportunities, school programs, etc.)
- VirginiaPlaces.org (DEQ's informative pages on stormwater treatment, drinking water, etc.)
State rankings are ordered so that #1 is understood to be the best.
Data Definitions and Sources
Virginia Department of Environmental Quality
- Chesapeake Bay TMDL Phase / Water Implementation Plans, Phase II and II
- Draft 2012 305(B)/303(D) Water Quality Assessment Integrated Report
Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation
Bay Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL)
See the Data Sources and Updates Calendar for a detailed list of the data resources used for indicator measures on Virginia Performs.