Most Virginians are accustomed to a safe and abundant water supply. From drinking water, to streams and rivers, to the Chesapeake Bay, water quality is something many take for granted.
But, water quality issues cannot be ignored. Virginians who get their drinking water from private wells must monitor its quality. Increased urbanization has led to problems with stormwater runoff. The Chesapeake Bay still suffers from poor water quality – even after years of cleanup effort.
''We have a multipronged approach to water quality in Extension,'' said Jim Riddell, associate director for agriculture and natural resources for Virginia Cooperative Extension. ''Water quality is a complex issue, and there is no one answer that will solve all the problems. Our programs have many different faces and target many different audiences in an effort to address this issue from all angles.''
The Virginia Household Water Quality Program – funded by a grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Cooperative Research Education and Extension Service – helps well owners manage their water supplies. ''More than one million Virginia households rely on private water sources,'' said Erin James, program coordinator. ''We are here to help people understand how to maintain and care for their water systems so that they have a safe supply of drinking water.''
Program participants provide a water sample to their local Extension office, which transfers it to the Water Quality Laboratory – housed in the Department of Biological Systems Engineering in Virginia Tech's College of Agriculture and Life Sciences – for analysis. Participants receive confidential lab reports at meetings where trained Extension agents explain test results and review options for addressing any problems identified. Video: See James perform an analysis of water quality.
The Water Quality Program began offering clinics in 2008, and more are scheduled for 2009.
When it rains, water not absorbed into the ground – known as runoff – finds its way into Virginia streams, creeks, and rivers. When runoff is contaminated, it jeopardizes the health of water resources.
David Sample, land and water resource engineering Extension specialist at the Occoquan Watershed Monitoring Lab in Manassas, Va., is working to address the problem in two ways: reducing runoff quantity and improving its quality.
''Urban stormwater runoff is a big concern,'' Sample said. ''We are working to update the management strategies we use to deal with storm water, including environmental site-design techniques such as forest conservation, soil restoration, and minimizing impervious surfaces.''
Paige Thacker, agriculture and natural resources Extension agent in Prince William County, has implemented a program that helps homeowners and businesses learn practical ways to improve the quality of stormwater runoff.
''So many people do not understand that waste water that leaves their home through a sewer system goes into a treatment facility, but water that enters storm drains goes directly into streams, rivers, and eventually the Chesapeake Bay,'' Thacker said.
Chemicals used on lawns and landscapes can seriously impact water quality. While Extension has educated the agricultural industry about the environmental impacts of chemicals it uses, homeowners also play a significant role in water quality.
Mike Goatley, Extension turf specialist and associate professor in crop and soil environmental sciences, helps inform people about the value of soil testing so they know the type and quantity of lawn fertilizer they need. Guessing often results in over-fertilizing and harmful chemical runoff.
Extension has a number of programs around the state that target homeowners and their lawn management. In James City County, Extension Water Quality Educator Bob Winters coordinates a group of 20 Virginia Master Gardeners that calls itself the Lawn Rangers. Teams of Master Gardeners visit about 250 homeowners annually to assess their properties and provide environmentally friendly recommendations.
''We ask the homeowners about their expectations for their lawn, measure the square feet of their lawn, take soil samples that are sent to Virginia Tech for analysis, and ultimately write a nutrient management plan for them,'' said Winters. ''The biggest change we suggest to most people is to change the timing of when they fertilize.''
Goatley added, ''Research shows that significant water-quality improvements can be obtained by educating homeowners about the proper ways to use chemicals in their home landscapes. We like to say we're improving Virginia's water quality by addressing the problem lawn-by-lawn.''
Read more about water quality in publications from Virginia Cooperative Extension.
Take a look back at previous Spotlight features in our archive.