It’s All About the Crabs

The James City County Stormwater Division engages residents by reminding them that clean water protects one of their favorite delicacies

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Instead of telling homeowners to use fewer pounds of fertilizer because it is good for water quality, Fran Geissler and her staff tie the message to something dear to people’s palates — crabs.

 

Crabs, the signature food of the Chesapeake Bay region, drive every stormwater management program for the newly formed Stormwater Division in James City County, Va. The chief problem is bacterial contamination of crab, clam, and oyster beds. When authorities issue shellfish advisories in tidal waters, the beds remain closed to fishermen until the water is safe again.

 

Formed in July 2007, the division and its six full-time and one part-time team members accomplish major objectives by working seamlessly with other branches of county government. Their paths cross constantly because of fragmented responsibilities. Geissler also has two powerhouses at her disposal: the regional stormwater management effort, known as HR STORM, and statewide communities working together to solve stormwater issues.

 

Her ace in the hole, though, is the county’s well-educated, engaged residents. Anxious to protect their quality of life, they form many vocal, active advocacy groups that rallied around Geissler as she configured each stormwater approach to protecting the shellfish beds.

 

The result of these combined efforts is an outreach program that provides valuable scientific data, a watershed management strategy geared to restoration and upgrading, and a plan to retrofit the best management practices (BMP) system. The division’s accomplishments are testimony to empowered people working toward a common goal — protecting what they like on their dinner plates.

 

Riparian region

James City County is a peninsula bordered on the north by the York River, on the south by the James River, and on the west by the Chickahominy River.

 

The county is only now mapping its 20- to 40-year-old neighborhoods, and it is responsible for drainage easements between lot drainage systems and outfalls. In newer neighborhoods, mandatory homeowner associations operate and maintain the stormwater management facilities.

 

The county’s Environmental Division approves stormwater projects. The Stormwater Division, meanwhile, focuses on retrofit and stream restorations and other non-construction related MS4 requirements. The division also ensures that owners maintain their systems.

 

HR STORM, the stormwater education program of the Hampton Roads Planning District Commission, helps the county by providing quality materials and premium items so the county staff does not have to create them. “HR STORM is like a store,” says Geissler. “For example, we placed an order for storm drain medallions and, because we got a really good price, we gave them to advocacy groups for installation.” A crab silhouette fills the center of medallions that say: “No Dumping. Drains to Waterway.”

 

All stormwater posters, pamphlets, manuals, and other handouts used in the division’s booth at fairs and community events come from HR STORM. The program’s Web site provides information on how to dispose of medicines and household chemicals, maintain swimming pools, and landscape for waterways.

 

It also advises homeowners on ways to prevent motor oil, anti-freeze, fertilizers, pesticides, detergents, household hazardous wastes, pet waste, yard debris, and litter from polluting runoff. The site also has tools for educators and activities for kids and families.

 

The county also benefits from the regional Chesapeake Club program. That social marketing effort encourages lower fertilizer use to protect crab populations. The program’s drink coasters, found in many county restaurants, remind patrons to save the crabs. “Every restaurant has crab cakes on the menu,” says Geissler.

 

Bacterial bloodhounds

The division’s chief problem is that no one knows the sources of the bacteria that contaminate the shellfish beds. One indicator suggests wildlife. The abundance of open water and the 600 detention ponds look appealing to untold numbers of geese, deer, raccoons, shore birds, and waterfowl. An EPA report states one watershed will probably never meet water-quality standards because wildlife there is abundant and difficult to manage — nothing people can do will matter.

 

Failing septic systems are another suspect, so the county plans to inventory them. Another source could be pet waste, which may contribute up to 20 percent of the contamination.

 

To identify and track bacterial points of origin, one plan is to use microbial source tracking. But because the county has tidal and salt waters, it needs different indicators. When funds become available, Geissler’s division will pay the HR STORM commission an additional fee to look for a microbial source tracking method that is more foolproof and responsive than the state’s library-style system.

 

Soils are another major contributor to pollution. The lower part of the county has poorly drained, very silty/clayey/organic Class D soils with high groundwater tables and very low infiltration. Runoff races through these areas, carrying silt and debris.

 

Bug hunters

To evaluate the health of area streams and rivers, Geissler’s staff adopted a cost-efficient yet effective outreach volunteer monitoring program using protocols and quality assurance from the Virginia Save Our Streams (SOS) program. From June 2008, through mid-2009, SOS trained 40 people and certified more than 25 water monitors.

 

“Water sampling is one thing we do that makes us special, and our volunteers make it possible,” says Geissler. “We couldn’t possibly afford to hire consultants to collect as much data as we’re getting from our volunteers.”

 

Teams of two sample 20 sites around the county three or four times a year. Some are in pristine areas, others are below restoration projects, and still others are in urban venues. Using kick seines, volunteers agitate a sample area to dislodge and collect benthic macroinvertebrates. The organisms are identified, counted, and released.

 

“We’re looking for trends,” says Geissler. “Because organisms living on stream bottoms vary in their ability to tolerate pollution, they are good indicators of overall watershed health. The creatures we find determine if our streams are acceptable, partially acceptable, or unacceptable.” The Department of Environmental Quality reports that the volunteers are submitting professional data.

 

Buffer areas

Since the program is young, Geissler cannot state the health of the streams and rivers with certainty, but they appear to be holding their own. One factor could be the 100-foot riparian buffers required along tidal localities. “The little data we have indicates that they do make a difference,” says Geissler. “We prefer woods and shrubs as buffers, because lawns look too much like impervious cover.”

 

Once or twice a year, division staff uses probes to test phosphorus, nitrogen, and dissolved oxygen levels at the same sites. Geissler hopes to expand the volunteer stream sampling program to include chemical monitoring, since it appeals to people who do not enjoy counting bugs. The staff also does E. coli scans and easy gel screening for bacteria in watersheds with total maximum daily loading (TMDL) limits.

 

As word of the stream monitoring program spread, citizens of nearby counties and cities began asking Geissler if their stormwater agency also had one. “We’re blazing the path here,” she says. “I don’t know of any other county doing this, but I direct interested parties to the person who can start such a program.”

 

Turf Love

The stormwater program also extends to yard-care initiatives. Residents from northern states who move to Virginia are used to fertilizing their warm-season grasses in spring. However, the state’s cool-season grasses are fertilized in fall. Opposing fertilizing regimes led the county to blaze another trail: Its 10-year-old Turf Love program educates homeowners to apply the right amount of fertilizer at the right time.

 

Turf Love also involves soil sampling. For $35, a volunteer collects soil from a lawn and Virginia Tech University tests it. Based on the analysis, the county develops a seeding and fertilizing schedule and provides lawn-care recommendations to the homeowner for the next three years.

 

“Our soil has ample natural phosphorus, so we tell residents to read the labels on bags of fertilizer and don’t pay more for unnecessary elements,” says Geissler. “Their lawns will be happy, and so will the crabs.”

 

In 2008, the division achieved another first, completing a stream restoration as part of the county’s first management plan for the Powhatan Creek watershed. Population growth and farmland tilled for 400 years had produced many stream channels entrenched and disconnected from their floodplains. Geissler’s staff studied living resource issues and opportunities for BMP retrofits or stream restorations, then selected the Powhatan Plantation tributary for the project.

 

Low-infiltration soils upstream send water gushing through the 22-square-mile Powhatan Creek watershed, which empties into the James River. The area also has very erodible soils. Once a head cut starts, the water keeps cutting and even gullies backward.

 

“It’s amazing how much sediment moves downstream,” says Geissler. “Sediment in tidal systems remains there, washing back and forth and affecting every part of the ecosystem and user chain. It’s hard on the clams and other shellfish, too.”

 

To restore 2,440 feet of stream channel, workers excavated and reshaped it by adding riffles and meanders, then connected it to its floodplain. The stream can now safely overflow its banks. Studies of similar reconstructions show a dramatic reduction in nitrogen and sediment discharge. Powhatan Plantation Stream is the county’s signature water management project.

 

Whether it’s a dog-friendly Frisbee reminding owners to scoop the poop, rain gardens, fertilizer management, or volunteer stream monitoring, Geissler continues to seek approaches that will reach residents with a stormwater message.

 

“We have to take care of what is in our power,” she says. “We all should try, because we want crab cakes for dinner and to chase them down with raw oysters.”



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