Sojourning on the Shenandoah: Finding a Watershed Address

Sojourning on the Shenandoah
Finding a Watershed Address
by Chris Bolgiano

Few of us known as the Shenandoah Sojourners, on that first annual rafting trip down Virginia's Shenandoah River in 2003, had any experience with a stream swollen 10 times its normal size by heavy spring rains. River sojourns, usually sponsored by a coalition of community groups and reported by local media, have become a popular conservation strategy to engage the public on watershed issues. The majority occur in Pennsylvania, which showcases a different river every year, but Maryland, Delaware and New York also host increasing numbers of trips like mine.
For five days, as we paddled and camped along the banks, white water and white noise were part of our landscape. But the river was brown, a muddy, muscular arm so mighty it seemed beyond human powers of wrestling. When the rains stopped long enough to allow a campfire, we danced around it to dry our clothes as well as celebrate the beauty of a river once so renowned for clarity that its Native American name is believed to mean "Clear-Eyed Daughter of the Stars."
Now, like rivers across the country, the Shenandoah absorbs not only treated discharges from industries and municipal sewage treatment plants, but also an untreated chemical soup that pours with every rain from rapidly developing towns and suburbs as well as farm fields and industrial poultry houses. Every year since my trip, the annual Shenandoah Sojourners have floated into thousands of belly-up fish.
Fish die-offs occur periodically in rivers across America, and are usually attributed to a lack of oxygen caused by seasonal changes in sunlight and water temperature. But the lesions on the dead fish along a hundred miles of the Shenandoah are an ugly new development. Even more disturbing are the male smallmouth bass with eggs in their testes, a condition also found recently in the Potomac River.
Human pharmaceuticals are suspected, but with hundreds of potentially toxic substances reacting with each other in the water, it's extremely difficult to tease out a single cause. And the die-offs once limited to spring are now recurring in autumn.
Dozens of communities, including the nation's capital, draw their drinking water from the Shenandoah and Potomac Rivers. Millions of people have a stake in river health.
The goal of river sojourns is to build a community around a shared watershed address by stimulating conversations among as many diverse stakeholders as possible. We heard farmers explain how the fences recommended to keep cattle out of the river wash away in high water, a constant expense. We listened to foresters describe how logging roads should be constructed to mitigate erosion. We toured wastewater plants, feasted on locally grown foods, and sang "Peace in the River" with the choir of the United Methodist Church in the little town of Shenandoah.
I began to see that discussions exploring a variety of perspectives on the river are as important as scientific analysis of water quality data. Only by building understanding can we hope to build the political will to make the enormous changes necessary to resolve such problems as the mysterious fish kills.
But there also was a more personal subtext on the trip. As a Sojourner I ran not only the river but a gamut of emotions as well, from terror at the first rapids to the kind of happiness that only a flush toilet can bring. But mainly what I felt as I floated was wet, and maybe that's what made it possible to finally start seeing myself as part of the great global hydrological cycle that flows through every living cell. My "watershed address" stopped being an abstract concept and became a visceral reality.
As we passed incoming streams large and small with tainted water, eroding banks and every imaginable deposit of our society's lifestyle, I saw that everything we do on land eventually drains into the waters around us. Even the air degrades the rivers when rain washes out acids and particles of pollution.
American Rivers, the nation's leading organization for healthy streams, defines "watershed" as "the boundary between one drainage area and another." A person's watershed address is arguably his or her most basic physical identity as a citizen of the planet. It's a moving identity that encompasses everything downstream of wherever you are. I now know that my own resident watershed address is the tiny nameless rivulet closest to my house, which carries the results of whatever I do all the way down to the Atlantic Ocean. What's yours?
Chris Bolgiano is the author of Living In The Appalachian Forest: True Tales of Sustainable Forestry, which won a Southern Environmental Law Center Writing Award, as well as four other books. This commentary is distributed by Bay Journal News Service.