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Bay Blog: Elizabeth River

Apr
02
2015

Elizabeth River Project shows the power of local action

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed, citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” - Margaret Mead

This quote is often used to characterize the efforts of individuals working for small organizations who get great things done. As I’ve traveled throughout the watershed over the past four years, I’ve repeatedly witnessed the remarkable work of these local organizations. Just recently, I attended a kick-off event for the fourth revision of the Elizabeth River Project’s Watershed Action Plan. More than 70 people attended, representing the major stakeholder groups in the Elizabeth River watershed: community representatives; local, state and federal government officials; business leaders; teachers and university faculty; and members of environmental organizations—a true collaboration.

The Elizabeth River runs through Chesapeake, Portsmouth and Norfolk, Virginia, as it flows toward the Chesapeake Bay. (Image courtesy travis nobles/Flickr) 

The Elizabeth River flows between the cities of Norfolk, Portsmouth and Chesapeake as it makes it way to the Chesapeake Bay. Once one of the most heavily polluted water bodies in the region, the area has faced significant environmental challenges. Money Point, along the Southern Branch of the river, was once a 35-acre “dead zone” contaminated by creosote, a chemical used as wood preservative. Most would find the thought of taking on these environmental challenges more than a little daunting. But in 1991, four local citizens outlined a vision for creating an organization to do just that, establishing the Elizabeth River Project just two years later.

The Elizabeth River Project released its first Watershed Action Plan in 1996, updating it every six years. The 2008 Plan established a set of guiding principles: build strong partnerships through collaboration, incorporate environmental education into every action, plan proactively to reduce impacts from sea level rise, monitor progress using indicators tracked against a baseline and promote environmental justice for all stakeholders. With each revision to the Watershed Action Plan, the goals have grown to be quite ambitious. In their current work on a fourth update to the Plan, the group’s determination only continues to grow.

In 2014, the Elizabeth River Project issued a State of the River report assessing the health of each of the five major branches. By any measure, the success of the past 20 years in meeting the ambitious goals they set for themselves is, in a word, incredible. On the notorious Southern Branch, including Money Point, more than 36 million pounds of contaminated sediment have already been removed, with further improvements underway. The number of fish species observed in the area has increased from four to 26, and the rate of cancerous and pre-cancerous lesions in the mummichog, an indicator species, has dropped from above 40 percent to almost background levels.

Students plant marsh grasses as part of an educational outreach program between the Elizabeth River Project and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Norfolk District. (Image courtesy U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Norfolk District/Flickr) 

Several programs run by the Elizabeth River Project work to increase awareness among various segments of society and to reward citizens who take positive steps to improve their environment. Their River Star Program highlights homes, schools and businesses that take simple steps to protect the Elizabeth River. With the help of donors and other supporters, they developed the Learning Barge, a solar- and wind-powered barge equipped with living wetlands, an enclosed classroom, composting toilets and a rainwater filtration system. More than 50,000 people—including 20,000 K-12 students—have been educated on the barge, which is moved from location to location by tug operators that volunteer their time and equipment. Restoration work by the Elizabeth River Project and its partners led to the opening of Paradise Creek Nature Park—40 acres of land along Paradise Creek, a tributary of the Southern Branch—in 2013.

While the Elizabeth River Project and its partners have accomplished amazing things in a relatively short period of time, they continue to look ahead at the work still left to do. On March 23, they held a kick-off meeting to once again revise and update their Watershed Action Plan—the first of four meetings that will culminate with a plan that guides the collaborative efforts of the organization and its partners for the next six years. Just as I have no doubt they will set their aim high when establishing their goals for the years to come, I also have no doubt they will achieve those goals in large measure. The Elizabeth River Project and its partners have never been intimidated by the magnitude or complexity of the challenge. It’s their river, and they are reclaiming it. They serve as an inspiration to all of us.

Note: The opinions expressed above are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect U.S. EPA policy endorsement or action.

Nick DiPasquale's avatar
About Nick DiPasquale - Nick has nearly 30 years of public policy and environmental management experience in both the public and private sectors. He previously served as Deputy Secretary in the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, Director of the Environmental Management Center for the Brandywine Conservancy in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania and as Secretary of the Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control.



Dec
04
2014

Elizabeth River earns a "C" on latest report card

Researchers have measured marked improvements in the health of the Elizabeth River – most notably in the “notoriously polluted” Southern Branch – earning the waterway an overall “C” in the latest State of the Elizabeth River report.

Image courtesy U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Norfolk District/Flickr

The report, compiled by a team of scientists convened by the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality and the Elizabeth River Project, evaluates river health by using bacteria levels, algae, dissolved oxygen, diversity of bottom-dwelling species, nutrient concentrations and the presence of chemical contaminants such as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs).

Image courtesy U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Norfolk District/Flickr

Improvements in river health are due in part to local restoration efforts, including establishing wetlands, building oyster reefs, and dredging contaminated sediment. Between 2009 and 2013, the Elizabeth River Project helped to remove more than 36 million pounds of sediment contaminated with PAHs – a legacy of four wood treatment facilities once situated on the shore – from the river bottom near Money Point, a peninsula on the Southern Branch of the waterway. Since then, the report states, cancer rates in mummichog fish have declined six-fold, and the number of fish species observed in the area has risen from four to twenty-six.

Despite significant progress in many regions of the waterway, much remains to be done. According to the report, upcoming river recovery projects will focus on the Eastern Branch, where the Broad Creek and Indian River tributaries both received “F” grades, and on reducing the high levels of PCBs found in fish and shellfish throughout the river.

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Jan
18
2012

Watershed Wednesday: Elizabeth River Project (Portsmouth, Virginia)

The Elizabeth River, a 6-mile-long tributary of the James River in southeastern Virginia, was named after Princess Elizabeth Stuart. She was the daughter of England's King James I, Jamestown's namesake.

Today, Princess Elizabeth is still around – yes, you heard us right! She often speaks to students in the Hampton Roads community about how people can help restore her river to the way it looked when Captain John Smith first explored it in 1607. The princess's public speaking appointments are arranged by the Elizabeth River Project, a non-profit committed to improving the health of the Elizabeth River through restoration efforts and education programs that celebrate the river's history and natural resources.

sunrise over the Elizabeth River

(Image courtesy beachgirlvb/Flickr)

Royal advocacy is one of many ways the Elizabeth River Project is achieving its goal of making the river safe for swimming and eating oysters by 2020. Here are some of the Elizabeth River Project's other inspiring programs.

Learning by doing: The Learning Barge

You may have heard that saying, "Those that can't do, teach." But like the many excellent teachers out there, the Elizabeth River Project proves this old adage wrong with its wind-powered, solar-powered, floating environmental classroom, The Learning Barge.

The objective of The Learning Barge is not only to teach visitors how they can help restore the Elizabeth River, but to exemplify these actions on the barge itself. Live floating wetlands demonstrate how these habitats absorb polluted stormwater runoff, composting toilets offer an alternative to flushing, and a rainwater system collects water to reuse. Visitors to this “green barge” can see firsthand how these actions help improve the Elizabeth River’s health.

The Learning Barge's innovation has earned it the 2011 Sea World & Busch Gardens Environmental Excellence Award, which is presented to outstanding grassroots environmental education programs across the country.

boy volunteers on Learning Barge

(Image courtesy Elizabeth River Project/Facebook)

Since 2009, more than 10,000 students have visited the floating classroom. This year, up to 60 students can set to sea at once on the barge. Three new stations (sun, wind and rain) focus on renewable energy technology.

The barge's field trip education programs were designed by local educators to meet Virginia standards for most subjects (not just science). The Elizabeth River Project even provides pre-and post-field trip activities, including art projects (sending a message in a bottle), journaling exercises (writing a letter to Princess Elizabeth) and more.

Baby, you're a star! (A River Star, that is!)

The Elizabeth River Project also gets adults involved in stewardship efforts through its River Star brand, a certification that home and business owners can earn after they take seven easy river-friendly steps. Some of the steps are so easy that they actually require you not to do something (such as not feeding geese, not flushing medicines and not dumping grease down the sink). Take a peek at this short video to see some River Stars in action.

The River Star certification is also applied to schools. There are already 128 River Star schools – more than half of the total 200 public and private schools in the Elizabeth River watershed. Students at River Star schools create herb and butterfly gardens, plant marsh grasses, learn how to compost and more.

students at trash cleanup

(Image courtesy Elizabeth River Project/Facebook)

Although the River Star certification is available only to Hampton Roads area residents, the seven easy steps are a great idea for anyone to try.

The Elizabeth River Project offers even more creative ways to help and enjoy the river:

  • Adopt a wetland or simply participate in a one-day cleanup. Many sites in Norfolk, Portsmouth and Chesapeake are in need of weeding, planting and litter cleanup. These visits also provide a great service-learning opportunity.
  • Visit Paradise Creek Park, slated to open later this year. The area surrounding Paradise Creek – an Elizabeth River tributary – was once nicknamed "Paradise Lost" because of its close proximity to the former New Gosport landfill, a Superfund site. Now the creek has become a model for urban waterway restoration. The park will provide the public with access to the Elizabeth River for boating, hiking and other outdoor activities.
Caitlin Finnerty's avatar
About Caitlin Finnerty - Caitlin Finnerty is the Communications Staffer at the Chesapeake Research Consortium and Chesapeake Bay Program. Caitlin grew up digging for dinosaur bones and making mud pies in Harrisburg, Pa. Her fine arts degree landed her environmental field work jobs everywhere from Oregon to Maryland. Now settled in Baltimore, she is eagerly expecting her first child while creating an urban garden oasis on her cement patio.



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