Peers praise Riverkeeper Jeff Kelble's advocacy in pushing for new regulations, tracking down sources of pollution
By Rona Kobell
From the road just outside Harrisonburg, visitors can't see the stream that runs through the line of dairy farms. Its vegetation is unkempt, its bed nearly dry. Even the cows on either side seem indifferent to it.
But Shenandoah Riverkeeper Jeff Kelble knows exactly what's in front of him. He leans in for a closer look and then sadly makes his diagnosis.
"Cattle have destroyed these streams," he said. "I've walked a thousand miles of them. I can tell you they're virtually lifeless."
Over the last five years, Kelble has worked to put life back into these waterways. He has aggressively gone after polluters, whether they are conglomerates with billion-dollar budgets or Mennonite family farmers with a few dozen dairy cows. He has pushed state and federal regulators to tighten up their permitting rules, working through university law clinics and other advocates to prepare lawsuits when talk only went so far. He has become the river's spokesman, although he hardly stands alone. Kelble has built a 500-member citizen movement to protect the shallow, rocky Shenandoah, a river immortalized in folk songs.
"He's one of the best riverkeepers in the country," said Potomac Riverkeeper Ed Merrifield, who hired Kelble five years ago to patrol the Shenandoah, which is the Potomac's largest tributary. "Jeff is a person who will run himself ragged doing everything that's necessary to protect the rivers and streams - he's able to say no with a smile and still get a seat at the table. People respect his knowledge of the rivers and streams, and people pay attention to him as a result."
Kelble never sought the riverkeeper job. All he wanted to do was fish.
That's not surprising. Kelble spent his early years surrounded by water in the Marshall Islands, where his father worked as a radar engineer. He then moved to Sudbury, MA, where he learned to fish in the tributaries of the Connecticut River. By the fourth grade, he had already written a fishing guidebook.
Kelble studied engineering at Tufts University. After graduation, he landed in Washington, DC, and worked in business. But, Kelble said, "there was a point where I realized I was fishing more than I was working." He left his desk job to become a fishing guide in Harper's Ferry. By the late 1990s, he opened his guide business, leading trips down the Shenandoah, Rappahannock and Potomac rivers and returning to his Arlington apartment to sleep.
Back then, Kelble recalled, he thought the Shenandoah Valley was paradise - undulating hills dotted with pastoral farms and the rocky river running from the mountains to the country roads below. After a while, Kelble said, he could see that beneath the surface the river was "a little off." From time to time, friends would become ill from bacterial infections. But Kelble never did, and the fish were still biting. It would not be unusual to catch and release more than 100 smallmouth bass in a day.
In 2002, Kelble and his wife, Erika, decided to leave the DC Metropolitan Area for tiny Boyce, VA, a one-stoplight town along the river. They bought a 130-year-old house and began restoring it, turning part of it into a bed and breakfast for Kelble's fishing clientele. When Kelble wasn't fishing, he poured his energy into tiling floors, and building and painting walls. The inn promised to be pretty busy when it opened in 2004.
But tragedy struck.
"Right about the time we opened," Kelble said, "we lost all the fish in the river."
In March 2004, as the last of the snow melted, millions of dead fish turned up in the North Fork of the Shenandoah. Instead of a localized fish kill, which can happen when a wastewater plant overflows or a milk truck overturns on the highway, this destruction was widespread.
When the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries couldn't determine the cause, Kelble began investigating. He knew the river was home to two Superfund sites, an old DuPont site laden with mercury, and Avtex Fibers, an aerospace engineering firm with PCB contamination. But he also began to explore the connection between pollution and those pastoral images of farm animals lazing in the streams. Kelble and a few of his fishermen demanded a deeper investigation. Eventually, the U.S. Geological Survey stepped in and published a study on the possible causes. Kelble served as a contributing writer.
Kelble continued to guide fishermen on the Shenandoah's South Fork. But when the fish began dying there, too, he had to close the bed and breakfast; he couldn't take people fishing when there was nothing to catch. He kept guiding on other rivers, leading to long drives, and even longer days, at a time he and his wife were starting a family.
On the Potomac, Merrifield was also overwhelmed. The Bay's second-largest tributary stretches from Southern Maryland to West Virginia, and has many problems of its own. Merrifield decided the Shenandoah needed its own riverkeeper. He had met Kelble when the fisherman invited him to speak to the Potomac River Smallmouth Club, one of the DC area's largest angler groups. He'd long known Kelble had excellent people skills and knowledge of the river; now, it was becoming clear he also had the fire in his belly to protect it.
When Merrifield offered to raise the money for the position, Kelble agreed to take the job. He started in 2006.
On the job, Kelble quickly taught himself about point sources and discharges, agricultural runoff and sedimentation. Like a concerned family member of a dying patient, he searched for a cure. But in this case, the patient was a 300-mile river that runs through two states. And its symptoms were complex: dead sunfish and smallmouth bass with lesions all over, various species with male and female sex organs, and a land-use pattern that pointed to agriculture” the region's lifeblood - as the likely culprit. Now, after seven years in the sick bay, the patient is hanging on, with Kelble still at the bedside, and no one is yet sure what has caused its illness, or how to prevent it.
But Virginia environmental advocates are sure that, without Kelble sounding the alarm, the fish kills would never have gotten the attention they received from multiple universities, agencies and the press.
"If it had not been for his advocacy, I'm pretty certain they wouldn't have gotten the resources that they've gotten, and the investigation would not be as far along as it is," said David Sligh, the former riverkeeper for the Upper James and a water-quality consultant. "He keeps pushing it."
Rick Parrish, an attorney for the Southern Environmental Law Center who has worked with Kelble on a number of permit-related issues, agrees.
"Together, it's been like fire and gasoline," Parrish said of Kelble's attention to the Shenandoah. "There's something horrific happening to the river, and there's someone smart and passionate and determined to tell that story."
The Shenandoah's story is one full of bends and twists. The river's name is loosely translated from Native American languages as "Daughter of the Stars." Native Americans lived on the land more than 1,000 years ago. In the 1800s, many of the towns along the river became major trading posts. In the 20th century, the river continued as a major agricultural area. Chicken and dairy farms dot the area, with many growers selling to large national companies.
Underneath the valley's verdant plain lies a layer of porous limestone known as a karst formation. The rocky land is full of depressions and crevices where chemicals can run off the land and seep into groundwater and then into surface streams. Kelble wants greater accountability and better management practices. He pushed Virginia to regulate where manure goes after it leaves each farm as part of the state's revamped Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation permit. He also was instrumental in passing regulations on how long, and where, farmers can store manure.
He regularly flies over the valley to look for violations. He recently turned over 25 incidences to the state's Department of Environmental Quality. He uses GPS technology and county maps to find out who owns the farms with the offending practices and writes them letters with the hope of getting them to change their behavior. Kelble hired a former newspaper photographer to travel every mile of the Shenandoah, map them and document the land use. He did a lot of it himself, too.
"I saw a lot of agricultural sites I could hardly wrap my brain around," Kelble said. "I found concentrations of animals near spring heads, with dairy operations right on top of themā€¦nothing is ever going to happen to that manure, except it's going to go into the river."
On the ground with Kelble in Harrisonburg, there is evidence his efforts are working. He passes one farmer who has recently put up a fence and installed his own water source to keep his cattle out of the stream. But for every well-intentioned farmer, there are others who won't make changes unless forced. Kelble points out two dairies that have been inspected by state and federal authorities. One has put in some practices, but in another, the manure barn is adjacent to the stream and the cows are lazing in the water.
Vicki Blazer, a fishery biologist with the U.S. Geological Survey who has been investigating the Shenandoah fish kills, says Kelble's public outreach has been crucial. Scientists are just beginning to understand the links between endocrine disrupters and agriculture. For example, Blazer said, scientists once thought intersex fish were the result of synthetic hormones getting into the water supply, either from birth control pills flushed down the toilet or medicine that was fed to livestock. But, she said, now they understand that natural hormones, too, can cause endocrine disruption.
"If you have cattle right in the stream, you don't have to wait for rain for those chemicals to get into the river," Blazer said. "Jeff's done a really good job of trying to get that message out. He understands that the farmers are on the edge of not being able to make it. He has an open mind about those things."
Kelble is not just focused on agriculture. Development, too, is a threat to the river, because of its proximity to Washington, D.C. In 2006, the Shenandoah made American Rivers' list of endangered waterways because of development pressures.
Kelble has also been active in thwarting gas drilling in the state. He recently wrote a letter on behalf of the river to Rockingham County officials who were considering granting a special exception permit for natural gas drilling. The permit has been tabled.
Despite his effectiveness, Kelble said he's not sure how long he'll do the job. Virginia farmers have opposed the EPA's pollution diet for the river. The area's Congressman, Bob Goodlatte, recently introduced legislation to cut funding for the EPA to enforce its new pollution limits. And the affable Kelble admits it's hard to be in a position where so many people are hostile to him.
"This job," he said, "is something that would be hard to do your entire life."
Sligh, who recently left his job patrolling the James, hopes Kelble doesn't get discouraged.
"He's created some ripples that have helped to make things move in a way that not many people in Virginia have done. It doesn't cause a tidal wave all of a sudden, but it does get things moving," Sligh said. "I hope he's here for a long, long time."
Read the entire story in the Chesapeake Bay Journal....