“Profiles in Environmentalism” is a recurring segment on our blog where we shine a light on the dedicated people who are working to preserve the world around them. Big or small, local or national, every environmental organization works towards the same goal: providing a greener world for future generations.

The Chesapeake Bay is simultaneously the largest and one of the most threatened estuaries in the United States. Its waters are the last stop for over 64,000 square miles of watershed, comprising thousands of creeks, streams, and rivers that pour into the channel before mixing into the Atlantic Ocean. But as with many built-up estuaries, its tributaries have become heavily polluted from years of development both inland and along the coast.

Changing Course

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The Elizabeth River has four main branches, including the Lafayette River to the northeast. The ERP manages restoration initiatives in all four branches.

One river in particular, the Elizabeth River, has borne the brunt of commercial and industrial activity for centuries. Large reaches of the river bottom are coated in toxic sediments, and its waters have grown dark and murky, leaving much of the waterway a dead zone devoid of fish, birds, and other wildlife. But the tide is slowly starting to turn as one local environmental group lays the groundwork for a major comeback.

In 1991, a group of four concerned citizens banded together to form the Elizabeth River Project, a non-profit dedicated to restoring the river through partnerships with the communities, businesses, and governments that lie within its watershed. The group’s first meeting was small and informal, nothing more than a gathering around a kitchen table. But as with so many great ideas, a single meeting of the minds was all it took to chart a new direction for the Elizabeth River.

The group published its first Watershed Action Plan in 1996, formalizing a 20+ year road map towards a practical restoration of the Elizabeth River. The initial plan identified all the major problems facing the estuary and provided an outline of the actions needed to realize the ultimate goal of making the river safe for people and fish to enjoy once again. Much focus was placed on creating new habitat throughout the river by restoring wetlands and shoreline vegetation, as well as working with businesses and government facilities to curb their impact on existing habitats. The plan also called for new initiatives to reduce the level of toxins and other pollutants in the river through, among other things, dredging the toxic goo that had been accumulating in the river bed for centuries.

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Much of the sediment in the Elizabeth River is contaminated from decades of industrial activity. The solution? Dredges. Lots of Dredges.

The river has improved dramatically since the adoption of the Watershed Action Plan. 25 species of fish have been reintroduced, 39 million pounds of contaminated sediment removed, and cancer rates among numerous species of fish have dropped. The success of the Elizabeth River Project can be partially attributed to their methodical approach to ecological restoration. Rather than trying to cure the ills of the entire watershed at once, the Project instead uses a “One Creek at a Time” model that focuses on restoring smaller stretches of the river first. This has the dual benefit of bringing visibility to the environmental issues affecting the waterway, while also demonstrating to members of the community that these problems are not intractable when you have a plan and a little initiative.

One Creek at a Time

In 2001, the ERP embarked on a comprehensive restoration project for an entire creek, the One Creek at a Time program with Paradise Creek, a small 2.9 square mile sub-watershed connected to the Elizabeth River. This particular branch of the river had long been subjected to pollution from a number of industrial facilities, including toxic landfills, shipyards, and factories. A study conducted by researcher Dr. Daniel Dauer in 2001 found that 92 percent of the creek bed was degraded, with the dominant species being nothing more than a pair of worms he found over the course of his survey. The Navy had been conducting its own sediment studies since 1986 and had consistently found concentrations of copper, lead, nickel, zinc, and pesticides in the upper reaches of Paradise Creek, the site of numerous naval facilities, including America’s oldest shipyard, Norfolk Naval Shipyard.


The Elizabeth River is an important waterway for the US Navy and has worked to reduce its impact on the local environment in recent decades.

Under a federal directive to clean up “superfund” sites, the US Navy took steps to aid in the restoration of Paradise Creek by removing several sources of environmental contamination. The Navy excavated 28,000 tons of landfill debris in order to clear space for reclaimed wetlands and reforestation. They also cleaned up several other contaminated sites that had been left untreated for years. Seeing the progress the Navy had already made with the creek, the ERP began reaching out to the Portsmouth community to gain the support of homeowners, businesses, and governments throughout the watershed, gaining resources and vital support for a number of projects. With their collective help, ERP managed to accomplish many things, including water sampling, runoff assessments, planting wetland grasses, establishing conservation areas across numerous acres of land, and acquiring grants to tackle major cleanup and remediation projects throughout the creek.

An Education in Conservation

Among the most effective outreach programs used by ERP for the Paradise Creek restoration, and many others, have been the River Star Businesses and River Star Homes programs. The ERP works with watershed businesses as partners to reduce pollution and help them build wildlife habitat on their lands. Every company that achieves documented significant results, as determined by peer review, is identified as a River Star Business, signifying that their business is an active part of the larger cause to restore the Elizabeth River. One former River Star Business, Giant Cement, a small cement transfer facility that was located right at the mouth of Paradise Creek before it was sold to Enviva, worked with ERP to create a no-mow zone across 22 acres of their property in order to create habitat for local wildlife. The company also went so far as to convert an old water-cooled compressor into an air-cooling one that eliminated all industrial runoff from the facility, and even allowed ERP to build oyster reefs at the mouth of Paradise Creek. More than 2,500 River Star Homes, meanwhile, reduce pollution and restore habitat by means such as picking up after their dogs and planting their shorelines with native species.

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Students receive a hands-on ecological education about the river and its ecosystem aboard the Learning Barge.

Aside from working to preserve the river for the current generation, ERP also works to ensure that future generations will preserve it. The group maintains a number of educational programs for local students, including the Learning Barge, a unique floating classroom that allows children to learn about the river and its ecosystem. The boat draws power from the sun and wind, and utilizes a rainwater filtration system for plumbing necessities. The main section of the deck is occupied by examples of wetlands, a microcosm of the habitats that ERP strives to create and preserve. Students learn firsthand about the ecology of their native river and the steps needed to restore it to its full habitability. So far 54,892 people have boarded the Learning Barge since 2009, with over 20,000 of them being K-12 students.

These programs have yielded tangible results as both the Paradise Creek, and many other sections of the river, are now thriving beyond the imagination of even the most optimistic environmentalist. 26 species of fish now inhabit Money Point in the Southern Branch of the river, a section previously referred to as a dead-zone. Nitrogen levels are falling, while dissolved oxygen levels are rising, creating far more habitable waters for fish to return to. Both the river’s Western Branch and Main Stem have achieved “C” ratings from area scientists, showing the remarkable progress the river has made since the 90’s when much of the Elizabeth would have received an “F”. Yet plenty of work remains before the entire urban Elizabeth River can be made as safe as practical for humans and wildlife alike.

Towards 2020

The ERP’s current plan calls for all practical reaches of the entire Elizabeth River to meet water quality standards for recreation by the year 2020. The vision of the plan (now under a comprehensive update by diverse stakeholders) calls for the health of the river to return to such a state that species that have been absent for decades will be able to return and flourish, allowing fishing and recreation in reaches once thought dead.

Accomplishing these goals will be the cumulative result of nearly 30 years of dedicated work on the part of volunteers, homeowners, businesses, and municipalities throughout the Elizabeth River watershed and beyond. The success of the Elizabeth River Project will be a testament to the enduring spirit of conservation; a cause that, as evidenced here, surpasses the traditional boundaries between the environment, industry, and government.


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