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Saturday, July 7, 2012

The Derecho and the James: A wrench in the gears of the Middle James

We were sitting around a campfire, the sweltering evening keeping us as far away from the flames as we could be while still within marshmallow-roasting reach for our celebratory s'mores. It was the last night of the Upper James Expedition, Friday, June 29 about 10 PM. Somewhere not far, just to the west, a band of intense storms we would later learn to pronounce as a derecho was making an unprecedented sprint across the Appalachian Plateau. The Midwestern phenomenon swiftly became an unwelcome guest in Virginia. Nearly a dozen Virginians would die, millions would be left without power, and billions of dollars of damage would result.

Around the campfire, a refreshing breeze at last eased the close heat the night. "That's feels great!" someone said. But what was that sound in the trees? Why did the atmosphere suddenly feel wrong in my bones?

The winds built from pleasant to vicious in about 90 seconds. In this period we ordered everyone to drop their marshmallow sticks and marched double time through the darkness straight to the campground bath house. By the time we got there, limbs the size of my arms were coming out of the tall oaks that hours before we had been admiring for their beauty and shade. Looking out from bathhouse, we joined all those who have experienced gusts over 50 mph in a forest in a stark realization: trees have become the enemy.

Out in the darkness a pine tree about 10" in diameter fell onto our Toyota SUV, destroying the roof rack. A high-quality aluminum tent pole snapped. Anything not staked down went somewhere else. No rain, not much lightning, just the eerie gusting of a strange new wind.

We thanked God for our safety, and by midnight it was all over. We returned to our our campsite, picked up what we could, and slept deeply.

So the Upper James Expedition ended with a bang. Taking out at the Lynchburg Canoe Ramp, we met a friendly local who informed us that the whole city was without power, and that he had heard that the sewage treatment plan was not able to operate. He said that sewage was going straight into the river. After spending 8 wonderful days swimming and snorkeling amongst the fish, turtles, and other creatures of the James, this was hard news to hear. Exhausted, we thanked him for the letting us know, and drove home to Richmond.

This past week, preparing for the Middle James Expedition, we have faced a topsy--turvy world of confusion when it came to getting good information about what pollution had in fact been emitted into the James and what the human health implications of this would be. As fishermen, paddlers, river lovers, and watershed conservationists, we were and still are very concerned about the river-wide ecological impacts of partially-treated and untreated municipal sewage going into the river. As leaders of youth programs, we were imminently concerned with any elevated risk of contact with pathogens for those recreating on the river.

Information from the VA Dept. of Health and the Dept. of Environmental Quality seemed incomplete at times, and as the situation evolved over the week, the scope and type of pollution emissions that were reported changed. A widely-reported 13 hour period just after the storm of outflow from the Lynchburg wastewater plant of partially-treated sewage was accounted for early. But then late in the week we caught wind of an ongoing spill of entirely untreated waste from an Amherst County sewage pumping station.

Two things were very clear to us by yesterday, the day before the Middle James Expedition was scheduled to begin in Lynchburg.

1. We are delaying getting on this section by two full days to allow this contamination to move out of the system.(We will be taking our participating students and teachers on land-based adventures and a river trip upriver of the spills in the meanwhile.)
2. Our systems for back-up power at sewage facilities AND our systems for communicating about acute environmental health hazards at a state agency level are woefully inadequate, particularly in this age of climate change and the increase in severe weather patterns that it is already causing. This statement is not meant to cast blame or even to be political. It just appears to be the facts at this time.

So with lots to think about and cognizant that many citizens, agencies, and companies in the Commonwealth are struggling to cope with and recover from the derecho winds, we at the James River Association are cautiously moving forward with the Middle James Expedition. One thing hasn't changed; we believe that environmental education and sharing pride in taking care of our natural resources is as important as ever.

-Gabe Silver, JRA Education and Outreach Manager

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