- Associated Press - Tuesday, July 28, 2015

NORFOLK, Va. (AP) - Much of the ordinarily green Lafayette River has turned reddish-brown this summer because of an extensive algal bloom that has taken ahold of the urban river that winds through much of Norfolk.

The blooms are considered a threat to fish, crabs and oysters because they can reduce or eliminate oxygen in the river, potentially leading to the creation of dead zones. The algae can also clog up fish gills and shellfish, even if dead zones aren’t created.

What’s creating the algal boom is a combination of warm water and excess nitrogen and phosphorous from various pollutants.

The excess nutrients can also build up over years and sit dormant at the bottom of the river until the conditions are ripe for them to become active, making it difficult to find a short-term solution or an exact cause. Researchers are trying to figure out why algal blooms are worse some years than others.

“There hasn’t been one smoking gun, one trigger, where if we did this, if we stop that, it would go away. I don’t know that all hope is lost, but we have to keep vigilant,” K.C. Filippino, an Old Dominion University research assistant professor who is studying the river’s algal blooms, said Tuesday.

While major strides have been made toward reducing the amount of bacteria in the river that has made it unsafe to swim in or harvest shellfish from for decades, the algal blooms are caused by other forms of pollution, such as lawn fertilizer and pet waste.

The algal blooms are perhaps the most visible sign that more needs to be done to improve the river’s water quality, said Chris Moore, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s Virginia senior scientist.

“I think this is a good example of we need to focus on different pollutants in different ways. We’ve done a good job focusing on bacteria. What we need to do is spend some additional time on reducing nutrients on the river system so we won’t see this type of pollution,” Moore said Tuesday.

“It majorly affects our fish populations. It majorly affects oyster populations.”

More than 10,000 homes are in the Lafayette River’s watershed, and stormwater runoff from them is considered a major contributor to the algal bloom problem. The Elizabeth River Project, an environmental group that is leading efforts to clean up the Lafayette River, has helped 150 residents in the watershed with lawn makeovers that make them more environmentally friendly. The group has also been placing oyster reefs in the river, which helps filter the water and eliminate the algae that cause dead zones.

“The bottom line for us is I don’t think people should be too discouraged,” said Marjorie Mayfield Jackson, executive director of the Portsmouth-based Elizabeth River Project. “It’ll take a long time and a long haul to see a big change. We’ve all got to keep at it.”

While the Lafayette River’s algal bloom has died down some recently, Filippino said it’s still prevalent near its connection with the Elizabeth River and continues to have a distinctive, foul-smelling odor.

While algal blooms aren’t uncommon in the lower Chesapeake Bay region, she said they typically don’t become prevalent until August. She said rising temperatures associated with climate change and this year’s summer storms may explain why the bloom began in early July.


Brock Vergakis can be reached at https://twitter.com/BrockVergakis

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