Nature Notebook: Rallying for the rivers

river keepers
Friends of the Rappahannock river steward Adam Lynch teaches volunteers to plant trees along an agricultural stream in 2018.

By Dylan Cooper, columnist

If you like clean, safe water, then you’ll be happy to learn that this year is the 50th anniversary of the Clean Water Act being signed into law on October 18, 1972. It was actually a list of amendments to a 1948 law called the Federal Water Pollution Control Act. The 1972 version was initially vetoed by President Richard Nixon, but thankfully a bipartisan vote from both the Senate and the House overrode that veto. I can’t imagine that kind of government action happening in this century, but I’m glad it did back then because it was a key driver behind the push to protect one of our most precious natural resources and the substance that supports most life on earth. That was a very influencing moment in the environmental movement in terms of taking care of our water resources. It spurred a lot of community action and involvement, not only to get that act passed but also to carry the environmental energy to the present day.

Now, outside of government funding and regulation, there are many nonprofits that fundraise in order to help support critical missions for water resources. We have some of the best of those people-powered organizations right here in our region. 

The Potomac Riverkeeper Network (PRKN) covers the Shenandoah and Potomac River watersheds, from the headwaters to Harpers Ferry, and to DC and beyond. Their organization includes the Shenandoah Riverkeeper, the Upper Potomac Riverkeeper, and the Potomac Riverkeeper, as well as a board, support staff, and many volunteer members. A big push they have had in our Shenandoah watershed is to stop cattle from having free reign in directly accessing the river, and instead provide farmers and the herd with fencing, a riparian buffer, and waterers often through cost-share programs like the USDA NRCS or local SWCDs. Shenandoah Riverkeeper claims to have helped reduce the number of herds in the river from 78 down to the single digits. They also helped get a state law passed that will remove all cattle herds from Virginia rivers and perennial streams by the year 2025. These efforts are vital to slowing streambank erosion due to hoof shear and decreasing nutrients and bacteria entering our river, which is the drinking water source for many towns up and down the valley. The Shenandoah Riverkeeper also hosted a volunteer river clean-up that covered 62 sites across the watershed. 

The PRKN has a few of their annual community outreach and fundraising events coming up soon. Over in Fort Valley at Elizabeth Furnace in the National Forest, the Rio Palooza will take place from 12 to 6 p.m. on Saturday, Sept. 17. This is a “full day of free, family-friendly fun” out in the forest featuring fishing, tubing, snorkeling, riding horses, dancing, games, Fish and Wildlife Demonstrations, Macroinvertebrate Demonstrations, Forest Immersion/Shirin-Yoku, Interpretive Trails, and Cabin and Conservation Booths. A big focus of this event will be to bring the Hispanic and Latino community closer to the outdoors during Hispanic Heritage Month. Spanish speaking or bilingual volunteers and presenters will be on site, and even a Latin Grammy-winning artist will be the headlining entertainment. Even though it’s free, they want you to register ahead of time here

Frank Filipy, member of the PRKN Gala Host Committee, also let me know that next month, PRKN is hosting their “Party on the Pier” gala on Saturday, Oct. 8 from 6 to 10 P.M. The 8th annual fundraiser “celebrates the work that PRKN does all year round to enforce clean water laws in the Potomac Watershed.” This event is hosted in Washington, D.C. on the District Pier at The Wharf. It is a night of “dinner, music, dancing, and inspiring stories of the work the Riverkeepers do.” The attire is “Black Tie or Festive Yacht.” Tickets start at $200 and sponsorships are available for more. Even if you can’t make an event, the PRKN depends on their members in volunteer efforts and annual dues that start at $50 a year. 

Located on the west side of the Massanutten Mountains is another river-focused volunteer nonprofit organization, the Friends of the North Fork Shenandoah River. Their mission is simply “To keep the North Fork of the Shenandoah River clean, healthy, and beautiful through advocacy, community action, education and science.” Their members do a lot of water quality testing as well as educational events. This kind of citizen science was crucial to last year’s VDH advisory listing of the 53-mile stretch of the North Fork for harmful algal blooms, and this year it included an 11.5 mile stretch

A Night for the North Fork, the Friends’ 18th annual dinner and auction, is coming up on Saturday, Sept. 24 from 5 to 8 P.M. It will feature dinner, a silent auction, and a live auction where you can “bid on special dining experiences, services, sporting goods, artwork, and more.” Tickets start at $70 for individual, $125 for couple, and go up with different levels of sponsorship. 

A similar organization, the Friends of the Shenandoah River, covers the entire watershed in order “To protect and restore the aquatic environment of the Shenandoah River.” FOSR has been monitoring water quality in the Shenandoah and its tributaries since 1987, and since 1997 through an EPA-certified lab at Shenandoah University.  I really enjoy their weekly reports of water quality tests from public river access points all over the watershed. They test for E. coli in the river water and keep an eye out for algae blooms and water levels to properly inform the public so they can make their own decisions whether or not to recreate in the river. 

On the east side of the Blue Ridge Mountains sits the Rappahannock River watershed and its protecting organization the Friends of the Rappahannock(FOR). Founded in 1985 as a non-profit, grassroots conservation organization, they “work to educate everyone about the river and to advocate for actions and policies that will protect and restore the Rappahannock River.”

FOR has a three-pronged approach to watershed health with advocacy, restoration, and education. They do a lot of advocacy for water resources at all levels of the government. Their restoration efforts span across a wide variety of species from oysters to menhaden and american eels to brook trout. I have personally helped with their volunteer tree plantings and seen their stream restoration work in action. Their education outreach has been a hit across many school districts and with their hiking and paddling events featuring historians, birders, stewards, and more. 

The Friends of the Rappahannock has Rappahannock Riverfest this Saturday, Sept. 17, 3-7 PM, at the City Dock in Fredericksburg. It is a 30-plus year tradition where FOR invites the community to the river for a good party to celebrate a great cause. This fundraiser has become a staple for the organization, allowing them to raise unrestricted funding to keep the organization in tip top shape. “This means that the unlimited crabs, BBQ, auctions, entertainment and more, goes towards keeping our building powered, vehicles on the road, and staff paid,” said Carleigh Starkston, Communication Coordinator for FOR. “This year we endeavored to make our event ‘green’. We reduced our waste by over 90% by choosing compostable or reusable plates, forks, and cups as well as using napkins that are made from 100% recycled fiber napkins. We have also partnered with Apex Organix Composting facility to compost all of our crabs shells, dishes, and more!”  They also have a silent auction online through Friday and a live auction/raffle at the event. Individual tickets start at $125. 

Another local organization with similar goals of advocacy and education for the environment as whole is the Alliance for the Shenandoah Valley. The Alliance formed from several separate organizations from around the valley just a few years ago. They are big into land conservation, clean water, and bringing local environmental issues to the forefront of public knowledge and advocacy. They are a good organization to follow for newsworthy environmental events here in Page County and beyond. The Alliance is also a good resource for landowners to find out what they need to do to promote environmental stewardship. 

If you’re looking for end of summer activities to enjoy, or places to make a charitable donation, these are great opportunities where you know your money will go to a good cause. And you will get to connect with local, like-minded people who also love the environment.

After all, it may just result in better fishing, healthier ecosystems, and a cleaner place to recreate.

Dylan Cooper is a Page County native and graduate of Luray High School and Virginia Tech. He is a stream restoration specialist for a local non-profit and a registered professional engineer in the Commonwealth of Virginia. Avid outdoorsman and ardent environmentalist, he resides in Luray with his wife and dogs.  

Email: [email protected]

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