Friends of the Middle River remove garbage from water

Last year, Friends of the Middle River had a total of 64 volunteers.

Friends of the Middle River fully immerse themselves in the environment with their conservation practices. They dispose of debris from the water, lugging canoes full of trash behind them as part of their annual river cleanups.

The Middle River is 70.6 miles long and flows entirely within Augusta County. Kate Guenther has volunteered with the group since its inception and is now its first paid employee as the watershed administrator. She says volunteer action is at the heart of FOMR, a nonprofit organization dedicated to promoting the stewardship and enjoyment of the Middle River Watershed that started in 2010.

“The reason that’s important is because Friends of the Middle River is committed to this idea that we really need everyone in the community to help clean up this river,” Guenther said. “It takes the city dwellers, the young folks, the older folks, the farmers, the industry — it takes really everybody if we are going to have clean water.”

Annual river cleanups start in the late summer when water levels are lowest so that groups can see the most trash and access it easier. Last year, FOMR had 12 teams with a total of 64 volunteers. FOMR accommodates teams for which days work best for the group.

“The kinds of trash that are in our river, Middle River, tends to be larger stuff that has washed off of people's property in floods,” Guenther said. “You might get a few cups and Coke bottles, but what you really get a lot of is lawn chairs and tires, things that are really a bit bigger and stranger.”

According to Chairman Dave Mangun, FOMR removed 60 tires from the river in 2018. The year before, it removed over 200 tires. Virginia Eagle Distributing partners with FOMR and puts a dumpster on its parking lot to aid with the river cleanups.

“If you can imagine it, we’ve pretty much found it in the river,” Mangun said. “Last year, we filled a 20-cubic-yard dumpster with material that we removed from the river. That was from approximately 18 miles of river.”

FOMR is considered a citizen's monitoring group, as it works in conjunction with the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ), which monitors the water quality in four different ways: Benthic Macroinvertebrate testing, E. coli Bacterial monitoring, temperature monitoring and salt runoff monitoring.

The Benthic macroinvertebrate testing is its most extensive program that looks at the aquatic insects that live in the river. By seeing which species of insects can live in the water and how many of them there are, they can start to make an interpretation about the quality of the water based on who’s living there.

E. coli bacterial monitoring is necessary for agricultural areas. Cows that have access to water directly contribute to the levels of E. coli, a major source of pollution.

Rivers that have access to shade from trees are generally healthier, which is why FOMR uses temperature monitoring.

The fourth way, salt runoff monitoring, measures the salinity of the water based off the runoff from the roads when they are de-iced for the winter.

The DEQ has had its staff cut by 30 percent and its budget slashed by nearly $60 million over the past decade. According to Guenther, this is where FOMR comes in to have “enough boots on the ground” to help out.

“That’s where citizens monitoring groups, whether its Friends of the Middle River or Friends of the Shenandoah River, or any of these kind of friend groups can really extend what they can get done by having a big pool of volunteers that can go out and do the grunt work of taking a water sample — stuff that isn’t necessarily rocket science …. but it does take somebody’s time and effort,” Guenther said.

Tara Wyrick is the Water Monitoring and Assessments Manager for the Valley Regional Office. She sees the FOMR and DEQ partnership as beneficial to both organizations.

“The Department of Environmental Quality and our other state agencies partners get to have people who are on the ground — who live and work and play in the watershed and let us know what’s going on,” Wyrick said.

The Middle River still faces plenty of problems. When there aren’t enough trees along the river to hold sediment, loose dirt is washed off fields and pollutes the water. Nitrogen runoff from fertilizers is also a major issue.

“When you hear about the Chesapeake Bay having algae blooms that are making dead zones in the Chesapeake Bay, that’s because of nitrogen coming from places like here,” Guenther said. “In high quantities, it does become a water pollutant.”

FOMR will be at Earth Day Staunton to reach out and educate the public. It will also be attending Waynesboro River Festival. It currently has a Mary Baldwin student as an intern filming the E. coli monitoring program to illustrate what FOMR does in the community but is potentially looking for a JMU student to fill that role.

Watersheds past the Middle River include the Shenandoah River, the Potomac River and the Chesapeake Bay. FOMR believes that how we treat our water trickles down and affects others in the larger community.

“As one of our affiliates says, we all live downstream,” Mangun said. “I think that speaks volumes.”

Contact Mitchell Sasser at sassermp@dukes.jmu.edu. For more coverage of JMU and Harrisonburg news, follow the news desk on Twitter @BreezeNewsJMU.