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Fairview's problem

 Fairview Beach in King George County has long had a water contamination problem.
Visit the Photo Place
Date published: 8/19/2014

THE BEST THING about Fairview Beach is that it's on the Potomac River. Problem is, the worst thing about Fairview Beach is what it puts into the Potomac River.

For years and years, river water sampled near the Fairview Beach shoreline has frequently tested positive for bacteria associated with fecal matter. Now, the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality has issued a report quantifying the waste based on the sources from which it originates.

Curiously, birds win: There's more seagull guano and other bird waste than anything else--by a wide margin--at 41 percent. Humans, pets and wildlife account for the rest, with 27, 23 and 9 percent, respectively.

The information has been churned up by the new Fairview Beach Watershed Plan, a 10-year, $1.17 million project to determine exactly where the chronic water contamination is coming from and to figure out how to stop it.

So, why has it taken so long to make a concerted effort to find the answers? The fact is that gaining access to the private property from which some of the filth may be spewing doesn't come with a knock on the door. You need a reason, like a septic system visibly malfunctioning in the backyard. People might not even know they're contributing. Might be that some people just don't care.

Nevertheless, given the longevity of the problem and the serious threat to health it presents, it's outrageous that it's simply been allowed to go on for so long, giving Fairview Beach a reputation that's hard to shake. Despite the King George County Service Authority's efforts to address infrastructure issues, the bacteria persists, and where it's all coming from no one knows for sure. The weather provides clues, however: The problem worsens when it rains, suggesting runoff issues, and when the river is choppy, suggesting sediment contamination.

In the watershed plan, DEQ officials make it clear that targeting human waste is their top priority. They'll be looking for leaks in sewer pipes and septic systems. Plans call for working with homeowners whose systems are failing to get them fixed or upgraded.

Waste from boats is also suspected. There are efficient and clean ways to pump those tanks out, but do all boaters take advantage of that? Do some boats' systems leak?

The local trailer park has long been cited as a possible culprit. It has been eyed for redevelopment with waterfront town houses, during which storm and wastewater systems would be updated. Until then, officials hope to gain the authority to identify and fix sewage issues there.

Much needs to be done to lift Fairview Beach from the situation in which it finds itself. Given the ongoing efforts to clean up the Chesapeake Bay, and the fact that the Potomac is second only to the Susquehanna among the bay's freshwater contributors, nutrient pollution is best cleaned up locally before it is flushed downstream.

In Fairview Beach, it would simply mean being able to enjoy the water without fear that it could make you sick.