The Eyes And Voice of the Shenandoah River

Riverkeeper Mark Frondorf works for a cleaner river for everyone to enjoy

By David Lillard

A lot of people know their special spot along the Shenandoah River, whether they paddle it, farm it, or own it. Few people — maybe no one — knows the entire river and both its forks as well Mark Frondorf. A guide for over 20 years, and the Shenandoah Riverkeeper since 2015, Mark spends every day either on the water or fighting to protect it. His job is to defend the Shenandoah against pollution, protect the right to clean water, and promote the recreational use of this beautiful river.

In 2024, we at Clarke Monthly will publish regularly about the river and its place in our lives here in Clarke County. Mark took a short break from the busy legislative session to share his views about some of the big issues facing the Doah, as well as some good news on the horizon.

What’s the news from Richmond

“We’re looking at three or four water bills in particular,” said Mark. “They include PFAS, water quality standards, one involving wetland delineator certification.” Okay, that’s a mouthful. Let’s unpack.

SB 243 is a bill to create a PFAS advisory committee. PFAS are per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances. These widely used industrial substances are highly toxic and break down so slowly they are known as “forever chemicals.” According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, PFAS are found in the blood of people and animals all over the world and are present at low levels in a variety of food products and in the environment. They are found in water, air, fish, and soil at locations across the nation and the globe. They are known carcinogens. And only now are they beginning to get the attention of the public and policymakers.

“We’re trying to get a handle on PFAS in Virginia by monitoring publicly owned source water and wastewater,” said Mark. That includes biosolids, the stuff that’s left after sewage processing. “We are inadvertently applying PFAS to our agricultural soil.”

HB 1472 would improve water quality standards. “This bill takes a strong look at Virginia water quality standards,” said Mark. He said there are instances where Virginia requirements don’t necessarily align with Clean Water Act thresholds for fishable, swimmable, drinkable rivers and streams. “A paper mill, for example, meets itsVirginia permit requirements, but negatively impacts fishable, swimmable, drinkable water,” he said. The Clean Water Act contains narrative standards as well as thresholds. The bill would require use of 
narrative standards.

HB 1182 would weaken certification standards for wetland professionals. Traditionally, wetland delineators are trained wetland experts. Their job is to evaluate construction projects for potential damage to wetlands. This bill reduces the experience requirements and eliminates the requirement to take a course in the topic at all. “We could put a bunch of hacks out there approving any kind of project,” said Mark. “It’s bad legislation.”

Drought’s impact on groundwater

“The last few snowstorms and rains have helped, but we have a long way to go before we get our groundwater levels back to where they need to be,” Mark said. The groundwater well at Blandy Experimental Farm, he said, saw a drop of 12 feet from January to December 2023. “I’m concerned that if we have a repeat of 2023, come August or September, we’ll have even more wells running dry. Already, people are having to drill a new one, or dig their existing one deeper.” He said well drillers are backed up drilling new wells for existing wells.

“Shenandoah River water levels flatlined at the one-foot level on the Front Royal gauge from this past July through October. That’s all groundwater bubbling up.” Spout Run in Boyce, for example, comes out of the ground and emerges as a free running stream. That’s groundwater. The river is literally running on water from the ground, not the air.

Mark cited a study by World Resources Institute that predicts we will need 20 percent more water by 2030. “Where will it come from,” Mark asks.

Making matters worse for the Shenandoah are systems like the one serving Winchester. It pulls water out of the Shenandoah that is then discharged into the Opequon, which further reduces the river’s flow and contributes to harmful algae blooms.

Positive steps  on algae

Last year saw the start of a $2.5 million algae-bloom study to look at blooms in the Shenandoah and at Lake Anna. The study is being managed by Virginia’s Department of Environmental Quality, and conducted by U.S. Geological Survey and Interstate Commission on the Potomac River Basin. “The first two years will focus on data collection,” said Mark. “Year three is analysis, findings, and recommendations.”

River advocates hope that the recommendations will include establishing clear standards for nutrients, a step that should lead to the Shenandoah being listed as an impaired stream. That, in turn, will require a watershed plan and open the door to potential funding for restorative projects. It would also end the bizarre irony that has plagued the Shenandoah and other Virginia rivers and streams: EPA couldn’t put the river on the impaired stream list, because Virginia doesn’t have numeric nutrient standards for what impairs a stream. The joke has always been: No standards, 
no problem!

The guy in a boat

Mark Frondorf is a rare breed. For more than two decades, he led a double life: as a policy wonk in a think tank and a fishing guide with secrets and tales to tell. It’s a dual nature that still serves him well. Water policy is about science and law, about what is the stuff getting into the water and what it does to the things that live in it, the people who drink it and play in it. For their part, anglers know when something is off in 
the river.

They also know that the only way to know a river and to love a river is to spend time on it. Sharing the river with people of all ages and backgrounds is the part Mark likes most. “We promote river access and recreation. We believe the best stewards of the river are the users of the river,” Mark says. “If you take your son or daughter out for a fishing trip or paddling trip, it becomes their river. It becomes their story.”

For countless people, Mark is part of that story, their introduction and their grounding on the Shenandoah, even if they don’t know his name. One time several years back I was standing by the river and spotted Mark paddling on the far side. “Yo Mark!” I called. “Mark!” It was a windy day and the water is wider there. “Yo Mark!” 

Mark didn’t hear me, but the guy nearby turned to me and said, “So that’s his name. The guy in the boat. I fish all over this river, and I see that guy everywhere. Thought he might be following me or something. He’s everywhere. Mark.” 

I told him about Mark, the Potomac Riverkeeper Network that houses three riverkeepers: Mark on the Shenandoah, Brent Walls on the Upper Potomac, and Dean Naujoks on the Potomac River. And about riverkeepers and waterkeepers in general. Full disclosure: I’ve been to a few River Rallies.

You can listen to Mark live on WZRV-FM and WFTR-AM on Mondays and Fridays at 8:40am and at 4:30pm (thereabouts) during the “recreation season” running from the end of March to the beginning of October. Mark calls it vegetables and dessert. “Mondays are the vegetables, or where I talk issues. Fridays are the dessert or fun stuff. Where we talk about fishing or paddling conditions or bird migration or Virginia bluebells or fun stuff to get out and enjoy the resource.”

I am looking forward to checking in with Mark, the guy in the boat, from time to time this year. And to other 
Shenandoah stories.

Learn more about the Shenandoah and Mark at