Cleaning up, restoring our harbor river

HAMPTON ROADS, Va. – The non-profit behind a decades-long fight against pollution in the Elizabeth River is turning its sights to the eastern branch of the local waters for 2015.

The Elizabeth River Project, incorporated in 1993, is working to promote environmental health and restore the river to its practical reaches in five years. The eastern branch is one of the four main arms of the Elizabeth, and it shows some of its poorest conditions. About 160,000 people live in the area that covers three cities – Norfolk, Chesapeake and Virginia Beach.

The Tide Light Rail follows the branch that used to serve as an oyster epicenter, so much so they were used to make Shell Road, now Indian River Road, and at its headwaters formed a colonial port known as Kemp’s Landing (now Kempsville).  The steps ERP plans to take have to do with restoration: shorelines, tidal wetlands and bridge approaches. The non-profit has suggested that Virginia Beach plan for half an acre of wetlands in Kempsville, Norfolk to consider the Harbor Park shoreline as part of revitalizing this waterfront and Chesapeake to examine Indian River Bridge with a possible kayak and canoe ramp.

ERP wants 10 acres of wetlands restored by 2024.

Draft of bridge approaches
Draft of bridge approaches

Read the ERP’s full report and strategy

The bridge approaches have been drafted by architects with the Norfolk Redevelopment and Housing Authority to incorporate wetlands, cedar trees, oyster beds, meadows and public art. These designs are supposed to help visibility of the eastern branch, which at times sits unseen underneath the Tide and behind other developments. One spot in consideration is the Virginia Beach Boulevard bridge.

Step two has to do with vegetated shorelines. ERP is encouraging businesses, homes and schools to become River Stars, which gives special funding and assistance. Several conservation easements are in the works as well.

There are also plans to plant more than 1,000 trees and restore 10 acres of oyster reef.

One of the challenges the group faces is water quality. ERP said probable causes of the polluted water come from poor flushing as the branch narrows into smaller tributaries, stormwater runoff, aging sewer pipes and derelict vessels that may be leaking pollutants in a cove near the Campostella Bridge.

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To fight these bacteria, the project will try to promote incentive programs for businesses and homes as well as law changes to reduce parking lot and paving requirements.

Finally, the final steps forward involve collecting data and sampling in the eastern arm of the Elizabeth continuing the fight against pollution.

RIVERFest, an educational event since 2011, is part of ERP’s plan to inform people on the harbor river. It is Sept. 12. You can learn more on its website.