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South River; Rebirth of Trout Water

Updated: Sep 17, 2022

Waynesboro, Virginia is nestled at the bottom of the Shenandoah National Park. Serving as the southern entrance to Skyline Drive and northern entrance of Blueridge Parkway, as well as bordering the Appalachian Trail, the town has become a desirable stop for many outdoor travellers. It even boasts a high end fly shop to support the community.

Waynesboro was powered by a whole other industry back in the 1900's. Crompton Mills was a corduroy and velvet factory and there are stories that the color of the river would be the shade of whatever fabrics they were dying that day. Purple, red, blue, green, and not even on St. Patrick's Day. DuPont also had a factory on the river and from 1929-1950 they developed mercury and buried it along the banks. To make matters even worse, the town had no sewage treatment plant until the 1970's so literally everything ran ended up in the river.

While dyes can go away, as well as sewage, mercury sticks around for a long time. In fact, mercury does break down, so it won't go anywhere at all. It basically needs to be safely removed and mitigated from the environment. This has been done to the best technological ability, but small particulates have settled along the stream bed and eating fish from the river is not recommended. However, studies have shown crops grown in the floodplain to be safe for consumption and recreation is not a risk.

In 1984, Virginia officials and DuPont agreed to a settlement to compensate the state for damages to natural resources. DuPont paid a penalty and established a state-administered trust fund to support a 100-year mercury-monitoring program for fish, water, and river sediment. The monitoring program is administered today by the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ). In addition, the DEQ and DuPont established a team to use their collective science and policy expertise to research local mercury contamination. The team’s long-term objectives are to make fish consumption safer, communicate current risks to river users, and protect public health. This group is known as the South River Science Team. Today, the Science Team continues to focus on solving the environmental challenges of the South River and to stress the importance of the river in the community.

As the conditions around the river improved, the quality of the water started to improve. More efforts were made to better the waterway both in town, and before water even got to town. The local TU chapter stays very active in the upkeep and restoration of the river. Riparian buffers were added, and strategic falls were constructed to create pools and channel water. Trees were planted and later a greenway was added that creates a buffer of woods and grasses that filter drainage from the city before entering the waterway. In addition, a fly fishing only special regulations area in now upstream of downtown. A free pass and map are obtainable online or from the local fly shop to access this water. Annual stockings of fingerling brown trout over the last decade have allowed for some large fish to grow in.

Even downtown, surrounded by the old factories, trout have started to maintain a population. The improvement in the surrounding waterways have lowered the stream temperature and some of the stocked trout started making it through the summers. First the more tolerable brown trout and now rainbow are spawning as well. Continued efforts from TU have even hatched eggs in the stream on a few occasions. Most trout are large, too. 15-24" fish are regularly caught and larger have been taken. Aquatic life has improved and now hatches occur regularly. You can fish in the downtown lights at twilight for an evening dry fly fishing session.

Though not the most scenic river I have ever fly fished, the South River is wide open and large for our region. All the amenities are within walking distance, or take the quick drive out of town for a more serene setting. It is wonderful to see how a community can overcome their earlier pollution problems, and make an urban setting based around celebrating and accessing the outdoors. Go see Tommy and Kevin in the local shop and drop a few bucks in the stocking efforts. You might have just helped with the next generation of fish.

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