Once considered by the community to be “dead,” Virginia’s Elizabeth River is being revived through the efforts of one local non-profit organization. That's the role of the Portsmouth, Va.-based Elizabeth River Project (ERP), a non-profit organization devoted to restoring the Elizabeth River, located near the mouth of the James River in southeastern Virginia.
Few would consider the ERP's mission an easy task. The Elizabeth River watershed encompasses over 200 square miles of urbanized land from parts of four cities: Chesapeake, Norfolk, Portsmouth and Virginia Beach, Va. Ninety percent of the land in the watershed is developed.
Furthermore, the Elizabeth River, along with the Anacostia River and Baltimore's Inner Harbor, is one of three Regions of Concern —the most contaminated areas of the Bay watershed. The river's heavily industrialized Southern Branch has some of the highest levels of PAHs in bottom sediments found anywhere around the Chesapeake.
“The primary focus of the Elizabeth River Project is to try and tackle these known areas of contamination,” said Joe Rieger, Director of Watershed Restoration for the ERP. “If we can either clean up or remediate these sediments, that would be the most useful result for the entire watershed from a restoration standpoint.”
To accomplish this, the ERP has concentrated on doing intensive restoration of small sub-watersheds within the larger river watershed. The first area to be targeted was Paradise Creek, a 2.9 square mile watershed in southeastern Portsmouth . In 2002 the ERP received one of the first Chesapeake Bay Small Watershed legacy grants for this innovative cleanup and restoration project.
In 2003 the ERP published its five-year Paradise Creek Restoration Plan, which describes the cleanup of Paradise Creek “as a model for how to restore the Elizabeth River and the Chesapeake Bay —one creek at a time.”
In addition to cleaning up contaminated sediments, the ERP is reviving the landscape around the creek by planting buffers and restoring tidal wetlands. Soon, ground will be broken on the 40-acre Paradise Creek Nature Park , which will include trails, native flower meadows and a tree canopy boardwalk.
Recently the ERP published its second sub-watershed plan for Money Point, a 35-acre industrial area in Chesapeake that is one of the most polluted spots in the Bay watershed. The vision of this ten-year plan is to make Money Point “a model for the co-existence of thriving waterfront industry and ecological regeneration.”
Some of the goals of the plan include:
The cleanup plan for Money Point is significant from a Bay-wide restoration standpoint. It is one of the first efforts in Virginia to clean up contaminated sediments in the Bay and the first community-led sediment cleanup in the nation.
In addition, removal of toxic sediments will significantly reduce the amount of contamination that is transported to the James River and the lower Bay. “Once you start eliminating the hotspots, the overall regional PAH concentrations will start to drop,” said Rieger.
The ERP is also getting local schools, businesses and government facilities involved in the overall river restoration effort through its River Stars program. River Stars is a voluntary program for organizations in the Elizabeth River watershed that go above and beyond the law to reduce pollution and restore habitat. Over the past ten years, River Star organizations have:
The 59 River Star organizations “are making environmental stewardship the industrial ethic on the river,” said Lynn Louria, Director of Development and Communications for the ERP.
Despite the ERP's extraordinary efforts, the community perception that the river cannot be restored still clings on.
“We always hear people say that the river is dead,” said Rieger. “People are surprised at how many species live in the river.” Many important fish species, such as striped bass, menhaden and croaker, use the Elizabeth as a nursery area. And the river typically has one of the highest oyster spat sets of any area in the Bay.
As the restoration of the Elizabeth River progresses, it is likely that local residents—and the entire Chesapeake watershed—will come to recognize the river itself as a star. By taking the lead on creative and intensive restoration activities, the ERP has given the larger Bay community a model for successful restoration and a bright star to watch rise in the coming years.