Column – Pagan is cleaner, but population growth still pollutes

Published 4:58 pm Tuesday, January 23, 2024

Last in a series

The Hampton Roads Sanitation District sewer line has opened the door to a flood of housing development in Smithfield and Isle of Wight, but the line has also delivered on the state’s primary reason for demanding it. The Pagan River is cleaner today than it was before the sewage collection system was installed.

Not clean, but cleaner.

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There’s always been a misconception about Pagan pollution. People felt the town and packing plants were dumping sewage into the river. They weren’t. Thanks to modern treatment practices, driven by state and federal regulations, the daily discharge into the river in the early 1990s was quite clean. It did, however, contain high residual levels of nitrogen and phosphorus, which are major causes of poor water quality in the Chesapeake Bay and, locally, in the Pagan. That’s what the state was focused on eliminating.

Pollution in the Pagan and throughout the bay is far more complex, however, than just wastewater plants. It involves runoff from agriculture, from wildlife, from over-fertilized yards and a variety of other sources, all of which are loosely classified as “non-point.”

It’s not that those sources weren’t acknowledged. They were. An in-depth study of the Pagan completed in 1978 found that the river was suffering from “premature aging” attributable not only to wastewater discharge but a variety of non-point sources.

That study urged the removal of wastewater discharge from the river, but it also called for a comprehensive approach to non-point pollution, including a push for “best management practices” by farmers, developers and everybody else who might be contributing to pollution. 

It also acknowledged, as the Virginia Institute of Marine Science had in a related study, that the non-point sources of pollution were significant contributors.

All of those sources have since been tackled to varying degrees, and the river’s health has indeed improved.

First, the HRSD line took the treated wastewater off the Pagan. Reports today show that the nitrogen and phosphorus levels attributable to wastewater have dropped dramatically, as they had to, since the wastewater is no longer discharged here.

Agricultural contributions to non-point pollution in the Pagan have also declined. A portion of that decline can be attributed to the loss of agricultural land to other uses, primarily housing development. However, changes in agriculture practices have also been dramatic. There is virtually no livestock roaming free in the Pagan watershed today, and farmers today are using cover crops to an extent never dreamed of back in the 1980s. 

Developers have also had to clean up their act. The use of silt fences, unheard of 40 years ago, is now ubiquitous wherever dirt is being disturbed for development.

Still, the development that is occurring is causing an increase in pollution from that source, even with the erosion controls that are being required.

Chesapeake Bay assessment data provided by the Chesapeake Bay Foundation generally tells what has happened. 

The contribution of pollution from wastewater systems has naturally plummeted, both in nitrogen and phosphorus put into the Pagan. Likewise, the nitrogen and phosphorous placed in the river from agricultural sources, has been cut by more than half, and represents only about 4% of the river’s pollution.

Development, on the other hand, is putting significantly more nitrogen in the river than it was in 1985, and many times as much phosphorus, according to the CBF. 

None of that is unexpected. VIMS, in its 1977 study, predicted that even if the treated wastewater from the plants and town were totally removed, the river’s water quality improvement would be less dramatic than might be anticipated, thanks to non-point pollution.

And scientists agree that, as housing development brings more people, it also brings more non-point pollution. 

The bottom line is that population growth is the primary cause of Chesapeake Bay pollution, and locally, people-driven pollution can only increase as Isle of Wight and Smithfield welcome more development. 


John Edwards is publisher emeritus of The Smithfield Times. His email address is