Environmentalists have announced an ambitious plan to make one of the Bay's most badly polluted tributaries safe for swimming, fishing and shellfishing by 2020.

The Elizabeth River has been closed to oyster and clam harvests since the 1920s, and most of the urban river is considered unsafe for fishing and swimming. It is considered by the Bay Program to be one of the watershed's three "regions of concern" because of chemical contaminants. But scientists and officials say conditions are improving-largely because of upgraded sewage plants-and should continue to get better.

"We were afraid to say this before, that it was too high a dream," said Marjorie Mayfield Jackson, executive director of the Elizabeth River Project, an environmental group. "But we now believe in this-we can make the river swimmable and fishable again."

Jackson recently outlined a new action plan, capping months of discussion among scientists, state and federal officials, activists, teachers and business leaders.

The Elizabeth River Project, in conjunction with its private and government partners, aims to:

  • Increase the number of waterfront trees 20 percent by 2020.
  • Increase wetlands, which have been disappearing under development pressures since World War II.
  • Start a land trust by 2014 to accept and manage donated properties.
  • Urge local officials to start planning now for sealevel rise associated with global warming.
  • By 2020, enlist 25,000 people who pledge to live greener, change their lifestyle and complete stewardship activities.

"By the time I retire," Jackson said, "I hope to have a clean river."

The Elizabeth now contains some of the most toxic contaminants in the world, mostly locked in bottom sediments that remain from centuries of shipbuilding and heavy industry that largely went unregulated until the 1970s.

Much of the river's wetlands are gone. Hundreds of storm drains in Norfolk, Portsmouth, Chesapeake and Virginia Beach empty into the Elizabeth every day. High levels of bacteria-from pets, sewage systems, storm water, wildlife, boats and ships-make swimming and shellfishing unsafe.

Also, the presence of highly toxic polychlorinated biphenyls has prompted state health officials to advise consumers not to eat more than two meals a month of most fish species caught in the river.