Description of Middle River and the Top Three Threats
Roger Robinson at the headwaters in 2013
Virginia has three Great Rivers that trace their start back to Augusta County—the James, the Shenandoah, and the Potomac. No water flows into Augusta County… it only flows out.
Augusta County has three rivers: the North River, the Middle River and the South River. Middle River is the longest, the highest in starting elevation, the largest in volume, and the farthest south. As a crow flies, Middle River is the longest of the three rivers (30 miles) and if you could straighten it out, it would be 71 miles long. The aggregate length of the river and its 10 principal tributaries is 122 miles, if straightened out it would be 233 miles.
North River joins into the Middle River at Grottoes and they join with the South River at Port Republic in Rockingham County. At Port Republic, the South Fork of the Shenandoah River is born.
Upper Middle River
Mile Marker 71-49
Major tributaries: Back Creek, Eidson Creek, Buffalo Branch
Middle River proper begins on the valley floor south of Shemariah Church in Swoope at mile marker 71 very near the boundary between Augusta and Rockbridge Counties. Many small springs enter the river in this area, but it remains largely a warm water stream (over 70 degrees Fahrenheit in the summer). Cochran Spring pours over a thousand gallons/minute of cold water into Middle River as it courses downstream, giving many hope that wild Brook Trout will one day occupy its waters with good conservation practices. Indeed, biologists have tried small stockings of fingerling Brook Trout along Route 602, but lack of shade and legacy sedimentation have been barriers to establishing a reproducing population of Virginia’s state fish. Small streams enter Middle River in the Summerdean area from Little North Mountain, but none support wild trout.
There are two lakes in this area, both on private property. Hope Lake (at the Boy Scout camp) is located on a tributary to Middle River near Trimbles Mill. A little further downstream, 15-acre Smithleigh Lake sits in the turn where Middle River hooks east in Swoope.
Back Creek, enters Middle River from Middlebrook and joins in Swoope. Then Middle River travels on to the Trinity Point area. Eidson Creek converges with Middle at mile marker 53. Finally, Buffalo Branch and East Dry Branch join, draining off of eastern North Mountain.
Unlike most rivers, Middle River’s worst pollution problems occur in its furthest upstream reaches— in Upper Middle River. Mostly this is due to poor agricultural practices in this very rural agricultural part of the county. The biggest problems are due to animals having access to the river which causes E. coli problems (from defecation directly in the river as well as nearby run-off) in combination with inadequate riparian buffers which reduce soil erosion and sediment and also help to reduce the E. coli levels in the water.
The saving grace of Middle River is that there are many springs that add water to the river along its way, which dilutes the pollutants so that downstream the water quality actually improves. FOMR has done both E. coli and benthic monitoring for water quality in this region.
It is difficult to do much paddling on the upper Middle River because there is not enough water to make paddling much of a possibility. Public access is also an issue, which reduces the amount of any form of recreation on the Upper Middle.
Mile Marker 48-18
Major tributaries: Jennings Branch, Moffett Creek, Lewis Creek, Christians Creek
In this section, Middle River begins to widen and look like a small river. It courses through beautiful limestone bluffs, farm fields and residential development, wide enough and deep enough to float canoes and kayaks. In his classic book Virginia Whitewater, H. Roger Corbett opines that the best paddling of Middle River is the section between Route 250 and Franks Mill. Many others agree the area is some of the prettiest paddling available on Middle River. Middle River follows Eagle Rock Lane, only runnable in spring when the water is high enough. And this stretch may be more challenging, skill-wise, also.
The tremendous cold-water resource, Gardner Spring, enters the river near Franks Mill. Such a volume of groundwater is produced here that it partially serves the City of Staunton's water supply. A large wastewater treatment plant in Verona also treats some of Staunton’s (and Augusta County's) return-water needs.
Jennings Branch enters the Middle River around mile marker 46 then the River flows on down to the Franks Mill area. It follows for a while closely along Middle River Road and picks up water from Moffett Branch. It flows on past the village of Spring Hill and twists around until it passes the Shenandoah Valley Campground near mile marker 32 where it picks up water from Falling Spring Run, a lovely waterfall you can see from the campground property.
From the campground, Middle River follows Bald Rock Road into Verona and passes under Route 11 to continue towards Laurel Hill. The state-of-the-art wastewater treatment plant discharges its clean water into Middle River near mile marker 27.5. The AccuTec blade manufacturing (old American Safety Razor) plant in Verona continues to employ a large workforce from the area and is located near the confluence of Lewis Creek and Middle River at mile marker 27.
Another Middle River tributary, Lewis Creek, originates along Middlebrook Road, flows by Landes Park in Staunton, courses underneath the Wharf parking lot, emerges next to White Star Mill restaurant, runs between the Virginia School of the Deaf and Blind and the stockyard, and eventually joins Middle River near AccuTec. Lewis Creek has a history of flooding Staunton near the Wharf. A well-engineered stormwater plan is urgently needed to keep downtown Staunton dry during high-water events. Lewis Creek has received toxic runoff and industrial dumping over time. Dangerous chemical constituents (PCBs) have found their way into the flesh of many fish species that inhabit the stream, so care must be taken before consumption.
Christians Creek is Middle River’s largest tributary. It originates near Greenville and winds its way northward joining Middle River near Verona at mile marker 18. Meadow Creek is also part of this crooked tributary. Christians Creek runs through a heavily-farmed area of Augusta County. It picks up nutrients, sediment, and chemicals that wash off the landscape and into its waters. Despite deleterious inputs, Christians Creek supports a variety of fish life. Just think of it as a small version of Middle River.
Lower Middle River
Mile Marker 18-0
Major tributaries: Polecat Draft, Broad Run
Some say that the best fishing on Middle River is in the lowest 10 miles of the River.
The lowest third of the River switches back on itself in tight meanders starting downstream of the entry of Christians Creek at mile marker 18. H. Roger Corbett in Virginia Whitewater writes that Middle River "does more winding than almost any other creek/river/stream in Virginia." These tight meanders are a terrific feature of this river for paddlers because it creates short vehicle shuttle times while allowing for long paddle times. This lowest section of the River is widest and most reliably full of water all season.
The landscape tends to flatten and more farms and housing begin to appear. One dam still exists on Middle River (at mile marker 16.2) and it can be located just upstream of the bridge at Route 616, Damtown Road. It is a non-functional dam that needs to be portaged if you are on a float trip. The pool behind the dam backs the river up at least a half-mile. It continues to be an ecological impairment, a blockage to fish passage, and a drowning hazard to those who get too close during high water.
Middle River follows closely along River Bend Road then meanders through the Knightly Mills area and beyond. Broad Run passes south of Shenandoah Valley Regional Airport and joins Middle River near mile marker 3.5 at Mount Meridian. Middle River ends and joins North River at mile marker zero, just upstream of the Route 668 bridge.
The closest public access downstream is at the Port Republic public boat launch.
Top Three Threats to
Middle River has always been used as a dumping ground. Trash thrown from vehicles accumulates along the banks while other litter is deposited by floods. Tires have been thrown into the River for decades.
Based on its monitoring results, the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) has determined that sections of Middle River and many of its tributaries have E. coli bacteria levels and sediment deposits that exceed State standards. High E. coli levels are unsafe for swimming and recreation. Excessive sediment runoff prohibits the growth of macroinvertebrates – the tiny insects where the aquatic food chain begins. FOMR, through its volunteer activities, monitors these waters on a regular basis to determine which areas have unsafe bacteria levels and which areas need improvement to support aquatic life.
3. Lack of Access
Middle River, regardless of its problems, is a beautiful river. Citizens of Staunton, Augusta County, and surrounding communities are drawn to it for many reasons – fishing, family outings, boating, meditation, swimming, etc. But because its banks are nearly 100% privately owned, it is not easy for the public to experience the river. And without the ability to experience the River directly, it is difficult to get the citizenry to be emotionally invested in wanting to care for the River.
What FOMR is Doing to Help
FOMR's desired impact is that Middle River will have clean water and thriving aquatic life, and become a source of pride and recreation for this community. Using voluntary conservation practices throughout the watershed, rural landowners, city dwellers, and local governments will link together in shared appreciation of Middle River. Citizens will feel safe in the same clean water that supports our agricultural industry, towns, and wild ecosystems.
By continuing to educate the public about water quality issues, and by offering access to the River, we expect citizens of all ages to feel more attached to this resource and more knowledgeable about protecting it.
By monitoring water quality using science-based protocols, we can continue to partner with and inform our local and state government agencies responsible for water quality. Since many government conservation agencies experience cycles of staffing and funding cuts, our trained volunteers will extend the reach of conservation professionals by putting “more boots on the ground.”
By collaborating with schools and participating in events like Earth Day Staunton, Riverfest, and Kites & Critters, FOMR can help youngsters as well as adults learn about water quality and understand the importance of clean water and healthy rivers to all communities.
2019 River cleanup tire collection