A quarter century ago, Norfolk’s Lafayette River was in a miserable state, fouled with sewage spills, pet waste and a toxic mixture of other pollutants in one of the Chesapeake Bay’s most degraded tributaries. Authorities warned city dwellers against any contact with the water that sloshed against the shoreline.
Fed up and under regulatory pressure, the city and concerned residents of the Hampton Roads community came together five years ago around an ambitious plan to restore the 13-mile urban river.
In June, the effort marked a major milestone, when Virginia regulators declared that harmful bacteria levels in the Lafayette had declined enough to make it safe for boating, fishing and getting splashed, except in areas close to the Elizabeth River.
The river’s rebound is far from complete, and the progress so far was anything but easy or cheap. But it has inspired hope in Hampton Roads and elsewhere that restoration is possible, even in the most polluted parts of the Bay watershed.
“Collective impact was the key to the restoration of the Lafayette River,” said Joe Rieger, a deputy director of the Elizabeth River Project, a local environmental group that’s helped to lead the effort. “The engagement of the community has been truly amazing — this is one of the few urban rivers which have seen such a dramatic recovery.”
That recovery has been a long time coming. The Lafayette is the northernmost branch of the Elizabeth River, long regarded as one of three toxic “hot spots” in the Bay watershed. More than two centuries of shipbuilding and manufacturing in Hampton Roads left the larger river’s bottom contaminated with a potpourri of cancer-causing chemicals and harmful metals.
John Martin, who’s lived on the river all of his 83 years, recalled that in his youth, raw sewage poured into the water from a large pipe carrying wastewater away from downtown Norfolk. He and his friends boated and even jumped in the river back then, Martin said. Suffice it to say that the water included things that are barely imaginable today.
“Believe it or not, he is probably recalling that accurately,” said Ted Henifin, general manager of the Hampton Roads Sanitation District. “I have heard similar stories from other locals who were around the shorelines in the early-to-mid 1900s.”
Sewage contamination forced the condemnation of the oyster beds throughout the Elizabeth River system in the 1920s. The Hampton Roads Sanitation District, formed in 1940, built three wastewater treatment plants that decade, according to the district’s history.
Henifin said the sewer main Martin remembers could well be the one that was not attached to a treatment plant until sometime in the 1950s.
Fast forward to 1991. Four concerned residents came together “around a kitchen table” to launch the Elizabeth River Project, according to the group’s history. They sought to enlist citizens, government and industry in a collaborative effort, and unveiled their first “watershed action plan” 20 years ago.
Around 2008, according to an account by Marjorie Mayfield Jackson, the group’s executive director, the campaign set its sights on making the Elizabeth swimmable one day. Leaders decided to focus on reviving the Lafayette first, figuring it would be the easiest part of the larger river to tackle, as it is mostly residential and not heavily industrial.
Even that posed significant challenges. The Lafayette’s 14-square-mile watershed is within the city of Norfolk, population 245,000. A bit more than half of those people live in the Lafayette’s basin, which is covered by a lot of impervious surface. “You can’t retrofit that,” said the Elizabeth River Project’s Rieger.
Homes built in the 1920s line much of the Lafayette’s banks, and stormwater street inlets empty directly into the river. The area was developed “long before the environment was a concern,” Rieger noted.
In 2010, Virginia imposed a total maximum daily load, or pollution diet, on the entire Elizabeth River system that is aimed at reducing health-threatening bacteria levels. The state identified sewage overflows, failing septic systems and animal waste runoff as the likely sources of the bacteria.
In the years just prior to that, the state and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency had reached consent decrees with the sanitation district, Norfolk and other Hampton Roads localities requiring them to overhaul the aging, leaky, overflow-prone sewer system.
In 2011, the Elizabeth River Project and the Chesapeake Bay Foundation unveiled a new plan intent on reducing harmful bacteria by 2014 “to levels that are safe for swimming in all practical reaches of the Lafayette.” It also called for reducing nutrient pollution enough to eliminate red tide algae blooms and fish kills, as well as increasing oyster reefs and wetlands in the river to help improve water quality and wildlife.
In the ensuing years, the city and the sanitation district together have replaced dozens of sewer lines and cleaned out hundreds of others at a cost of $76 million. All publicly owned clay sewer lines have been replaced, said Justin Shafer, an environmental engineer Norfolk’s Department of Public Works.
HRSD’s Henifin said the sanitation district will soon begin a 35-year “wet weather” program to keep rainwater from leaking into sewer lines running from the street to homes and businesses. Normally, landowners must pay for testing and fixes of the “lateral” sewer lines, but the HRSD will test and replace lines as needed, at the utility’s expense.
“Our current estimate has us spending $150 million on this work,” Henifin said.
Other, more voluntary efforts of the restoration plan also have made great strides. An estimated 2,000 homes in the Lafayette watershed have become “River Star Homes,” a campaign launched by the Elizabeth River Project to get residents to do things around their homes and in their neighborhoods to help the cleanup.
The residents committed to seven practices in all; one is a pledge to “scoop the poop” by collecting and properly disposing of pet waste. Other practices include reducing the use of lawn fertilizer, not feeding the geese and emptying waste tanks on boats only at marina pump-out stations.
The buy-in from homeowners is the best aspect of the restoration effort, in the view of John Stewart, informal leader of the Lafayette Wetlands Partnership. The area actually has two such programs, he noted, with the Norfolk Department of Public Works running Bay Star Homes citywide.
With the help of volunteers, the Elizabeth River Project and Bay Foundation have also created 12 oyster reefs in the river, which they believe are helping to reduce nutrient pollution. A single oyster is believed to filter up to 50 gallons of water a day.
The CBF planted 16 million oyster spat in the last year alone, capped with the planting of another 500,000 spat this August. The oysters are reproducing naturally, said Jackie Shannon, the foundation’s Virginia oyster program manager.
Along the shoreline, the city of Norfolk has restored 15 acres of wetlands and is close to completing the restoration of another seven acres of wetlands, said Chris Moore, the Bay Foundation’s senior scientist for Virginia, as he piloted a boat on a recent tour of the river.
Moore pointed to native wetland grasses and other native plants that are thriving at many places on the river’s banks. The living shorelines replaced bulkheads and riprap that were protecting property, although some hardscapes remain.
One of the properties with a living shoreline is the Hermitage Museum and Gardens. Yolima Carr, the museum’s curator of gardens and grounds, said that she believes the river has become much cleaner, although it’s “still a work in progress.”
To keep from having that progress undermined, the campaign has tried to prevent new threats. The city of Norfolk, Elizabeth River Project and other organizations persuaded a big developer in the mid-Atlantic region to stop a major residential development adjacent to the river. The parcel was put under a permanent conservation easement.
Waterfront development continues, though, including a large new apartment building just 20 feet from the river’s edge. Right after it opened, water tests picked up a mysterious spike in bacterial contamination, said Shafer, the city of Norfolk environmental engineer. The CBF’s Moore said the builders had misconnected the sewer line, but he added that it was swiftly fixed after the owner was notified.
The Lafayette restoration effort still has a way to go to reach its goals. Bacteria levels in the river are still too high for swimming safely, even in dry weather. And while it’s no longer considered risky for people to recreate on the water, the state Department of Health still has consumption advisories for many fish if caught in the Lafayette. The advisories stem from bottom sediment contaminated with polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs. Once widely used in electrical equipment and a variety of other products, they have been banned since 1979, but do not readily break down in the environment. They have been shown in tests with lab animals to cause a variety of health effects, including cancer and immune and reproductive problems.
Even so, activists hope to soon ease the longtime ban on consuming oysters from the Lafayette. Rieger said the coalition would like to see at least part of the river reclassified from “condemned” for shellfish consumption to “restricted,” which would allow personal oystering. Commercial harvests would be allowed, but only if followed by the temporary transfer of the oysters to a cleaner water body, Rieger explained.
“The restoration of the Lafayette River, my home river, has been one of the most rewarding projects I have ever been involved with in my life,” Rieger said.
It’s also inspired hope for a similar restoration in the Bay’s other toxic hot spots, such as Baltimore. The harbor there is battling many of the same ills — sewage leaks and overflows, urban runoff and toxic sediments from more than a century of shipbuilding and other industrial activity that has since been largely replaced by intense waterfront development. Baltimore’s Healthy Harbor campaign, which aims to make it swimmable by 2020, featured Norfolk’s Lafayette River in a report it published earlier this year looking at how other cities had cleaned up their degraded urban waters.
Despite the gains in Norfolk, Stewart, with the wetlands partnership, said he worries that the momentum could be lost, as bigger environmental groups shift their focus elsewhere.
“It will be very difficult to maintain the stewardship for the indefinite future,” Stewart said.
Indeed, two years ago, just as bacteria levels in the Lafayette were starting to reach levels safe for recreation, the Elizabeth River Project launched a new campaign. It unveiled a plan to clean up the Elizabeth River’s Eastern Branch, which Rieger said has some of the poorest water quality in the Chesapeake Bay watershed and really needs “our focus and efforts.”
Rieger vowed that the project would continue to work on the Lafayette but added that neither his group nor the Bay Foundation can clean up the river by themselves. “It is the community that needs to do it,” he said.