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Runoff continues to be a major source of pollution

A storm water runoff filter system has been installed to treat water running off the roof and asphalt parking lot at the renovated Urbanna Lumber Corp. building and property just outside of Urbanna. Above is the water outlet at the headwaters of Sprout Cove ravine behind the firehouse. (Photo by Larry Chowning)

by Larry S. Chowning

For generations, the deep, steep ravines at headwaters of creeks and coves have been natural dumping grounds. Ravines were natural areas for getting rid of trash. They provided a place—out of sight and out of mind.

Three major ravines that surround and cut through the center of the Town of Urbanna have been used for generations to dispose of trash and anything else unwanted, such as cars and old tires.

Sprout Cove ravine is the northern boundary of the town and years ago provided a dumping site for the Old Tavern and other homes on Prince George Street. What could not be burned in the fire barrel “went over the hill.”

Perkins Creek ravine runs along the town’s western boundary to the south, emptying into Perkins Creek and the Rappahannock River. At the end of the 19th century, the headwaters of Sprout Cove and Perkins Creek met at a certain point near where the Urbanna Firehouse is located today.

Today, wine and soda bottles, tires and other trash are going to the landfill rather than ravines, but Sprout Cove, Perkins Creek, Jamison Cove and Urbanna Creek have become the main avenues for another type of unwanted element—storm water runoff from the streets and parking lots of the town, highways outside of town, and from the new urban growth to the west of Urbanna.

The small springs that once fed the headwaters of the creeks and coves have been either replaced or supplemented with large pipes that move water very quickly off streets, and this is not always good for the environment, said Dr. Robert Diaz, professor of biological sciences at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science.

An “impervious surface” is a big issue as far as Chesapeake Bay pollution is concerned, said Dr. Diaz. In a natural landscape, the maximum amount of runoff pollution occurs after the beginning of a storm. Impervious surface areas increase the velocity and quantity of this runoff.

Dr. Diaz said impervious surfaces include roads, parking lots, driveways, sidewalks, rooftops, patios, pools, and severely compacted soils from development activities such as grading, excavation and landscaping.

“Urban growth has created impervious surfaces that allow water to move so fast it no longer seeps into the ground to restock aquifers,” he said. “Also, when water flows slowly from land to sea, it has a chance for pollutants to filter out through a biological process in the soil.”

Hydrocarbons from oil and grease on parking lots and nutrients from fertilized lawns and gardens are reaching the waterways. “When there is nothing to slow these things down, they can create some real problems,” said Dr. Diaz.

There are ways to filter out pollutants, and two storm water drains in the Town of Urbanna have filtering systems.

John Mullins recently had the old Urbanna Lumber Corp. building renovated and built a large office park. He also installed a large pipe from the property that extends behind the firehouse. This pipe moves surface water off his parking lot and building and empties into Sprout Cove ravine. 

Mullins has installed an underground filtering system to take out sediment and hydrocarbons. The system also regulates the amount of water flow emptying into the cove.

Tommy Langford of Church View Septic said the new system used by Mullins is much more environmental friendly than just letting the water run freely. Langford said the system is extremely expensive, but Mullins felt it was needed to protect the environment.

The Town of Urbanna has installed an underground filtering system in the storm water drainage line on Virginia Street, which empties into Jamison Cove behind the town post office. It was part of the town street beautification project. “Our plan is to eventually have filtering systems throughout the town,” said town administrator Lewis Filling. Such a filtering system is in Phase III of the street beautification plans to handle runoff on Virginia Street to the waterfront, he said.

Filling indicated that the plans for the Urbanna Landing condominiums at the foot of Watling Street call for a runoff filtration system. (At this time, the Town of Urbanna and the condo developers are involved in a lawsuit over the proposed project.)

Filling also said he does not feel pollutants and sediment get to Perkins Creek or Jamison Cove because of the long marshy run from where the water discharges into the headwater stream. He believes the marsh in the ravine filters out most pollutants before the runoff flows to the cove and creek.

An unfiltered portion of the town system goes into Sprout, Perkins and Jamison ravines. The runoff going down Watling Street and toward Port Urbanna also is unfiltered. 

There has been about a 20 percent population growth on the Chesapeake Bay from 1985 to 2003, from 13.5 million to 16.2 million residents, and the number is expected to hit 19.4 million by 2030.
“With increases in population, it will mean even more impervious surfaces,” said Dr. Diaz. “The problem is not going to go away.”

Urbanna’s problems are small in comparison to some.  For example, The Washington Post reported in September that Washington, D.C., has only one drain system for sewage and storm water. Under normal conditions, sewage and storm water are treated and filtered together. However, when there are heavy rains the older sewers flood, sending raw sewage and storm water from 53 outlets into the Anacostia River, Potomac River and Rock Creek.

Each year, an average of 2 billion gallons of storm water and sewage from Washington, D.C., wind up in the tributaries of the Chesapeake Bay, according to the D.C. Water and Sewer Authority.

posted 01.07.2009

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