Ruth Martin, a leader with the Lafayette Wetland Partnership, poses by a living shoreline project that the organization completed. (Photo by Will Parson/Chesapeake Bay Program)

Since forming in 2007, the Lafayette Wetland Partnership (LWP) has been careful not to put a label around their work. They’re not a nonprofit or a business, and they don’t have formal team leads or officers. They take on mostly small-scale jobs—no contractors or heavy equipment, and no sites they can’t confidently maintain.

“The projects we do are all volunteer labor, all volunteer-led,” said Ruth Martin, a leader with the Partnership.

The approach has allowed the Partnership to fill a much-needed gap in restoration work around Norfolk, Virginia.

The Lafayette River was once lined with miles and miles of wetlands, filtering excess nutrients from the water, providing habitat for wildlife and keeping shorelines from eroding. But between 1944 and 1977, a time of immense growth around the maritime industry, the river lost 55% of its tidal wetlands and has been slow to recover.

Today, mostly small pockets of wetlands remain along the Lafayette River, which connects to the Bay from the Elizabeth River. These sites are typically too small for a larger nonprofit to work on, which makes them perfect for volunteer groups like LWP.

“We have focused on public wetlands that have degraded, eroded and have invasives,” said Martin. “Anything we could do to improve the quality of the shoreline.”

A yellow-crowned night heron hunts along the shoreline.

A yellow-crowned night heron hunts along the shoreline of the 47th Street Wetland Restoration and Rain Garden in Norfolk, Virginia. (Photo by Will Parson/Chesapeake Bay Program)

Small projects with a big impact

The Partnership typically works in eroded marsh areas wedged between buildings that are taking on a lot of stormwater runoff. With funding and resources from various partners, LWP visits these sites and does whatever they need to do to bring back wetland grasses.

Four projects so far have included a “living shoreline,” which are shorelines reinforced with natural features like native grasses and oysters. At these sites, LWP has included infrastructure to keep the wetlands from overflooding, such as coir logs (bio-logs) and oyster castles, which are cement blocks held together by oysters and mussels growing on the surface.

The Partnership will also enhance wetland areas with native plants and shrubs, pollinator gardens and rain gardens, which are vegetative areas designed to soak up and hold rainwater.

The design for these projects typically come from partners and experts with the Hermitage, Norfolk Botanical Garden, or City of Norfolk, while the plantings are done by experienced or trained volunteers.

“Master Gardeners are a big part of our program because they know the plants and know how to plant them properly,” said Martin.

Most recently, LWP was involved in a project to add green infrastructure to a popular walking and jogging path along Knitting Mill Creek. Years of use had turned the walkway into highly compacted, bare and eroded earth that did little to absorb all the runoff coming from the community.

First, LWP laid clam shell and stone dust along the walkway, which absorbs runoff better than concrete, and then installed large beds of native plants in a 6,900-square-foot green space. Additional plants were added in 2017; and in 2020, the clamshell portion of the pathway was extended another 150 feet. A pollinator garden is also currently being constructed.

Locals continue to walk or jog along the waterfront, but the vegetation now acts as a buffer that absorbs runoff, thereby improving the water quality. The project exemplifies urban restoration work—by striking a better balance between nature and human development, we can restore ecosystems and still enjoy views and access to the water.

Walkway along Knitting Mill Creek with added vegetation.

The path along Knitting Mill Creek is an example of a "hardened" shoreline. To better handle stormwater runoff, the Partnership is adding vegetation and more natural trail material. (Photo by Will Parson/Chesapeake Bay Program)

Maintain and train

Like most restoration projects, wetlands and rain gardens aren’t a “set it and forget it” solution. You have to remove invasives, trim plants where needed and create room for sunlight if certain vegetation is dying. While this work can be neglected by larger groups, LWP strives to ensure that projects do not fall into disrepair.

“The Partnership has figured out how to maintain these sites,” said Joe Reiger, deputy director of restoration at the Elizabeth River Project.

Part of the reason LWP has successfully maintained their sites is because they are careful not to take on more work than they can manage. Through monthly meetings, they decide amongst themselves who is able to visit a project and do maintenance, though no project ever falls entirely under one person’s responsibility.

“It allows our participants to enjoy what they do with us, because they can do as much or as little as they want, and there is no pressure otherwise,” said Martin.

The Partnership also offers mentorship and training to folks who want to do restoration work outside of the partnership. The partnership’s credo, “No one stands alone,” means they will support anyone who wants to improve the health of the river.

Close up of native plants in a rain garden.

The Lafayette Wetlands Partnership, an unincorporated organization of community volunteers, restored the "pocket wetland" along Knitting Mill Creek between 2011 and 2016, removing invasive reeds, adding sand, planting high marsh grasses and shrubs and installing a “rain garden” in the upland area. (Photo by Will Parson/Chesapeake Bay Program)

Big picture restoration in Norfolk

In 2017, the Lafayette River became the first Chesapeake Bay tributary in Virginia to meet the oyster habitat goal from the Chesapeake Bay Program’s Oysters outcome. Through the same outcome, four other oyster habitats have been completed in Virginia, including the world’s largest oyster restoration project on the Piankatank River.

Wetlands are a key part to keeping the oyster reefs healthy and allowing the population to grow. In addition to our Oyster outcome, the Chesapeake Bay Program also has a Wetlands outcome, in which we strive to create or reestablish 85,000 acres of tidal and non-tidal wetlands, while enhancing the function of an additional 150,000 acres of degraded wetlands by 2025.

In places like Norfolk, wetlands are important for bringing back oysters and making the water swimmable, but they also help protect against flooding. Due to sea level rise and land subsidence, Norfolk is one of the most vulnerable regions in the Chesapeake Bay watershed to flooding. Naturally, this work ties into our Climate Adaptation goal, which seeks to increase the resiliency of the watershed to withstand the adverse impacts from changing environmental and climate conditions.

Meeting these goals takes partners like LWP who can rally community members and work with larger organizations. To learn more about the organization and how you can get involved, visit their website.

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