Robin Dunbar of the Elizabeth River Project conducts a teachers' workshop at Paradise Creek Nature Park in Portsmouth, Virginia. The area surrounding Paradise Creek—a tributary of the Elizabeth River—was once nicknamed "Paradise Lost" because of its close proximity to the former New Gosport landfill. Now, the creek has become a model for urban waterway restoration.
Since 1991, the Elizabeth River Project has worked tirelessly to restore the Elizabeth River, which flows between the cities of Norfolk, Portsmouth and Chesapeake, Virginia, before making its way to the Bay. For years, the river was one of the most polluted in the region. But in recent years, though the river still faces a long road to recovery, improving trends have brought new hope to a waterway once thought to be devoid of life.
In addition to on-the-ground restoration projects, part of the Elizabeth River Project’s mission is connecting with and educating the local community. Initiatives include the River Star Homes, River Star Schools and River Star Businesses programs; the Learning Barge, a 120-by-32 foot barge-turned-classroom; and Paradise Creek Nature Park, which hosts educational programs for both schools and the general public.
Learn more about the Elizabeth River Project.
Image by Will Parson
In June, the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) removed the Lafayette River from its list of rivers contaminated by bacteria. The Lafayette, a branch of the Elizabeth River in Norfolk, Virginia, now meets the state’s water quality standards for recreational use, including swimming, boating and other recreational activities.
Virginia DEQ monitors the state’s rivers, reviewing the data every six years to update its list of impaired waterways. In its most recent water quality report, Virginia DEQ delisted a majority of the Lafayette River—except for a small tributary called Knitting Mill Creek—for bacteria, meaning the river’s levels dropped to those considered safe for recreational activities.
Despite this achievement, the Elizabeth River Project, a local nonprofit dedicated to the restoration of the Elizabeth River, still urges caution when on the water. They advise against recreational contact with the Lafayette within 72 hours of rain, as well as avoiding narrow, shallow areas such as the river’s small creeks. Stormwater runoff can wash disease-causing pathogens into waterways, and the smaller creeks can have higher bacteria numbers since they don’t flush out bacteria as well as larger rivers. They also note that swimmers should always take precautions such as avoiding the water if they have open cuts and showering or washing hands after contact with the water.
The new status of the Lafayette reflects the hard work of local groups and organizations. The City of Norfolk, along with the Hampton Roads Sanitation District, have been working together to upgrade sewer lines to prevent leakages into the river. The city is also restoring seven acres of wetlands along the Lafayette, in addition to 15 acres already restored by local partners. The Elizabeth River Project, in partnership with the City of Norfolk and the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, is working to restore the river’s natural oyster population by constructing over a dozen reefs. Their River Star Homes program, which began in 2011, now has over 3,300 participants who have pledged to take action toward protecting local waterways. "This is a great example of how the efforts of a small organization, the Elizabeth River Project, working with the community and other partners over a sustained period of time, can achieve such incredible results,” noted Chesapeake Bay Program Director Nick DiPasquale. “Hats off to ERP."
Marsh periwinkles cling to saltmarsh cordgrass at Money Point in Chesapeake, Virginia. The periwinkle is a small snail that lives in tidal marshes and wetlands near the mid- and lower Chesapeake Bay. Periwinkles rise and fall with each tide, feeding on algae growing on the blades of grass. The small snails are also known to practice “fungiculture” by chewing holes in the cordgrass and spreading waste across the cuts, allowing them to “farm” fungus.
Previously a 35-acre “dead zone,” Money Point is located along the Southern Branch of the Elizabeth River. It was once so polluted that the river bottom was nearly lifeless. Recent restoration projects led by the Elizabeth River Project and others have significantly improved the health of the waterway.
Learn more about the recovery of the Elizabeth River.
Image by Will Parson
Let’s say you’re a homeowner in Norfolk, Virginia, and a storm rolls in. As the rain falls on your yard you realize that you haven’t cleaned up after your dog. You’re tempted to forget it and stay dry. Then, through your water-streaked window you see your River Star Home flag flapping furiously in the wind, and you remember that “scoop the dog poop” is at the very top of the list of seven River Star guidelines you agreed to. You grab a raincoat and a shovel.
It’s no accident that the flag—and the pledge it represents—seems to hold a certain power for the nearly 3,200 people who have signed up for Elizabeth River Project’s (ERP) River Star Homes.
Any homeowner can sign up to join the River Star Homes program. Participants commit to do seven simple things to help improve water quality and restore the Elizabeth River.
“There are studies that show you're more likely to carry out those behaviors because everybody knows that you made that pledge,” says Marjorie Mayfield Jackson, ERP’s executive director.
With funding from a National Fish and Wildlife Foundation grant, Jackson and her staff participated in workshops with social marketing expert Doug McKenzie-Mohr. She says the River Star Program incorporates some of the ideas from those sessions—with ERP’s own spin on them. The idea for the flag came from another marketing professional who wanted something classy that people would want to display.
“We've actually been mimicked now,” Jackson says. “But ours was the first.”
That makes homeowner Tim Ferring one of the first of the first. He signed up soon after the program launched in 2011.
“The River Star flags started popping up all over the place, and you weren’t cool unless you had one,” Ferring says, jokingly.
Walking around his suburban property with River Star Homes program manager Sara Felker and grassroots coordinator Casey Shaw, Ferring passes his rain barrel and his sizeable compost pile and steps over the low-lying native plants that mark his rain garden. Since installing the rain garden, Ferring says his basement doesn’t leak and he doesn’t have to use a sump pump.
Jackson says another lesson that helped shape River Star Homes is that once someone agrees to something small, they are more likely to take the next step.
“And then we come back and then we ask them to consider things that are more costly and actually require them to do stuff on the ground,” Jackson says. “And we have a really good response.”
Ferring, for one, talks wistfully of installing a cistern so that he can water his lawn entirely with rainwater. As she leaves, Felker promises to email him information on solar power.
ERP also runs River Star Schools and River Star Businesses. Predating River Star Homes, River Star Businesses is a program that BAE Systems Norfolk Ship Repair joined in 1998. Just two years later, the shipyard achieved model level, River Star Business’s highest recognition of accomplishments in pollution prevention and wildlife habitat.
“They were pioneers in everything—capturing the runoff, doing the [treatment for] tributyltin, oyster reefs, habitat,” says Pam Boatwright, River Star Businesses program manager.
Mike Ewing, BAE Systems’ environmental programs manager, recalls when all they had to do was put straw bales down the dock to keep trash out of the river. When the copper-based paint used on ships would be blasted off, it would stain the water a blood red and flow out into the river.
“Probably one of the biggest things we were ever been able to accomplish was convincing them that they needed to spend several hundred thousand dollars to build these troughs around the end of the dry dock to collect runoff from the docks,” Ewing says. “And then we would treat it.”
Boatwright points out that the move was voluntary, not regulatory.
In addition to treating roughly 10 million gallons of wastewater every year, including about 9 million gallons from the dry docks, BAE Systems saves another million gallons of water by reusing steam condensate in their boilers. Other initiatives include the reuse of 50,000 gallons of recovered oil, the recycling of eight million pounds of materials, and the raising of 15,000 oyster spat every year. Ewing estimates their current move to LED lighting will save about 1.5 to 2 million kWh per year.
Ewing credits new ownership, a culture shift at the shipyard, and some pushing by himself and his colleague Steve Bulleigh for the striking changes.
The relationship with ERP, however, began with Ewing’s predecessor, who first reached out for help building a little wetland.
“He was trying to make small steps,” Boatwright says. “We made it really easy in the beginning to build trust and get people into the fold.”
The relationship between ERP and BAE Systems is now approaching two decades. Over the years, Boatwright says she has done a lot of cheerleading, as well as helping BAE Systems to identify and then support those projects.
“I think once we got the ball rolling it got better,” Ewing says. “And it got easier to do. And we've been lucky.”
Ewing says BAE Systems has won about 30 awards since 2000, including the Virginia Governor's Environmental Excellence Gold Award, without ever experiencing a lot of serious pushback from the company about rolling out new environmental programs.
“There's a lot of resistance to change,” Ewing says. “But most of these guys, they're campers and fisherman and they swim and they boat. And they like the water and they’re hunters. And so they really want to do the right thing.”
To view more photos, visit the Chesapeake Bay Program’s Flickr page
Photos and text by Will Parson
Additional photos courtesy Ed Ketz/BAE Systems
“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 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.
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.
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.
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.
(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.
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.
(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.
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.
(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: