Volunteer stream monitors in Virginia have been sampling water quality for over 20 years. Over that time, clear patterns regarding water quality have emerged. Thanks to the Virginia Save Our Streams volunteer monitoring program, we have robust, usable data covering Northern Virginia (NOVA) and the mountain range running along the state’s western border, and we’re working to get monitors on the ground in the central Piedmont region and along the coast.

Water Quality in Virginia

While a snapshot is useful, the real power of water quality monitoring is revealed over the long term. With regular monitoring over the course of many years, we can identify areas where water quality has changed.  The map below shows the water quality scores reported by Virginia Save Our Streams volunteers from 2010 to 2019. Click the clock icon to see a time lapse of changing stream health over the past ten years.

What’s Hurting Water Quality in Virginia?

Many factors can affect stream health scores: acute pollution events like oil spills or active construction, chronic fertilizer runoff, climate change, and development, just to name a few. By observing how water quality changes or remains steady over time, we can start looking for local, regional, and state-wide patterns.

The data collected by Virginia Save Our Streams volunteers shows, without a doubt, that urbanization and development have had a significant impact on the water quality of streams in Virginia. Impervious surfaces like roads and roofs drive tremendous amounts of polluted runoff into gutters, storm drains, streams, and rivers. This water runs untreated into critical sources of drinking water like the Potomac River and reservoirs. Although this water will be treated before it enters people’s homes, some chemical pollutants are difficult to remove.

A clever way to visualize the spread of impervious surfaces like roads and parking lots is to view the difference in temperature between cities and rural areas. Cities are on average significantly hotter than agricultural or natural areas, because those same impervious surfaces driving runoff also absorb sunlight and warm up the local environment. Imagine how hot a parking lot can get on a summer day – that heat can be measured and compared with naturally cooler forests and fields.

The map below compares stream health scores from 2019 with a “heat map” of Virginia’s cities. Orange and yellow areas mark spots where the average temperature was significantly warmer than other areas – Richmond, Roanoke, the NOVA region, etc. The colored dots mark stream monitoring sites, with each color representing a stream health score: Unacceptable (red), Acceptable (green), and Grayzone (grey). From this map, we can see that streams in rural areas tend to be healthy, while streams in urban areas often struggle with poor water quality.

What You Can Do

One of the most important takeaways from our stream health maps is that we need more volunteers monitoring in more places. In the past two years, we trained and equipped our first volunteers in Roanoke and Richmond, and it quickly became clear that water quality is poor in those areas. How many other regions are suffering from poor water quality, but people there don’t know it yet because their streams are not monitored sufficiently? How are rural areas in the center of the state faring? Virginia Save Our Streams is focused on training, recruiting, and mobilizing volunteers to collect and report this critical data.

Become a volunteer stream monitor

Support our volunteer stream monitors

Learn more about the Virginia Save Our Streams volunteer monitoring program