Nestled in the crook of the James and Appomattox rivers, the small Virginia city of Hopewell has for more than a century been synonymous with industry and pollution. But recently, ambitious efforts to address stormwater runoff and reconnect residents to nature are rewriting that familiar story.
“I feel like Hopewell is on the cusp of returning to its former glory,” said Ann Jurczyk, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s Virginia director of advocacy and outreach. “It’s got a bad rap because of all the chemical plants that are there, and there’s some legacy sediment issues that are horrible, but I feel like it’s poised to rebound.”
Nowhere is that more evident than the Riverside Park Stormwater Greenway. This roughly half-mile-long haven for wetlands, a restored stream and native plants cuts a green swath through the heart of Hopewell. At its head sits a cemetery where almost 6,800 Civil War soldiers lie, heavily used ballfields and an active osprey nest perched atop a stand of lights that illuminate one of the baseball diamonds. At its foot sits the city’s busy marina, kayak launch and fishing areas.
In between, Riverside Park — formerly known as Jaycee Park — was once what Hopewell stormwater program manager Joseph Battiata called “a haven for illegal activities.”
“There would be squatters living in these woods for weeks or months at a time,” he said.
Part of what made these squatters’ camps possible was the hardening of the unnamed stream that flows down the greenway into the marina, where it joins the Appomattox. As Hopewell developed into an industrial powerhouse, much of its 11 square miles was paved. With so much impervious surface, stormwater runoff increased, and its higher volume soon transformed the city’s innumerable small waterways into deeper, faster channels.
In Riverside Park, that evolution led to the partial disappearance of wetlands and the disconnection of the stream from its floodplain.
While the drier land allowed squatters to make the park their home, the faster streamflows allowed high loads of sediments, nutrient pollution and trash to be deposited into the Appomattox.
The Riverside Park Stormwater Greenway was first proposed as an effort to reduce that pollution in response to federally mandated cleanup goals for the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries.
“We can’t change the volume of runoff. The city’s been paved. We’re getting more rain,” Battiata said.
So, he said, “The goal is to use nature to process all those nutrients and sediment.”
Funding was cobbled together from multiple sources: the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality’s Stormwater Local Assistance Fund, the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and the city of Hopewell.
What resulted was the restoration of a stream that now winds through the floodplain, lined with native plants, trees and pocket wetlands. By raising the channel at the top of the greenway and installing structures like log sills and cross-vanes — which direct water toward the center of a stream — engineers were able to slow the stream’s speed, reduce erosion and help overflows spread out across the floodplain, where excess nutrients and sediments could filter through the soil instead of being dumped directly into the river.
At the top of the greenway, a “regenerative stormwater conveyance system” helps to funnel runoff from the adjacent neighborhood through a series of pools constructed with layers of rock and sand before the water ends up in the stream. An overflow pipe lets water bypass the cells if heavy rainfall threatens to overwhelm their capacity — an important consideration as precipitation increases.
At the bottom, permeable pavement and a bioretention basin installed by the Chesapeake Bay Foundation help to catch runoff just before it flows into the waters of the marina.
Altogether, the city estimates that the project will prevent about 1,600 pounds of nitrogen, 450 pounds of phosphorus and 78,800 pounds of sediment from flowing into the Appomattox annually.
But while the greenway quickly became a centerpiece of Hopewell’s efforts to clean up its waterways, it also signaled a renewed focus on the city’s water quality.
“In a place like Hopewell, everything is 50 years old. The infrastructure’s been neglected for so long. And it’s an industry town,” said Battiata. “We have a list a mile long.”
While the city looks downward to replace its aging sewer pipes, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation is looking upward for solutions — to the tree canopy.
“Part of our problem now with rainfall is that it’s coming in these really high-intensity storms,” Jurczyk said. Trees “hold part of that intensity during that first flush,” while “their roots create spaces to make the land itself more pervious, so the land is more spongelike and is able to hold water better.”
In this way, trees can significantly reduce nutrient and sediment runoff. The state-federal Chesapeake Bay Program estimates that every acre of tree canopy planted reduces 1.9 pounds of nitrogen runoff, 0.23 pounds of phosphorus and 22.6 pounds of sediment.
Compared with other cities in the region, though, Hopewell’s canopy is woefully lacking. A Bay Foundation study funded by the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation found that while the tree canopy covers about 42% of Richmond, 43% of Waynesboro and 47% of Charlottesville, it only shades 30% of Hopewell.
That does more than impact stormwater runoff. It also lessens quality of life, especially in lower-income areas where residents may not have access to air-conditioning and are impacted by the “urban heat island,” where pavements and developed areas become hotter than the surrounding air.
Research has shown that poorer areas tend to have less tree canopy than more affluent ones, a relationship described by conservation organization American Forests as “tree equity.”
The Bay Foundation sought to be “mindful” of that phenomenon as it embarked on efforts to increase Hopewell’s canopy, Jurczyk said. Trees have been planted in the city’s Woodlawn and Arlington parks, as well as outside the community center, which sits a stone’s throw from many of Hopewell’s industrial plants.
In the upcoming year, an additional grant from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation will allow the foundation to plant 250 additional trees in neighborhoods with the lowest amount of canopy. Trees will be placed along streets, where they can catch rainfall before it meets the impervious surface of roads and sidewalks. A tree stewardship class will also ensure that when the foundation’s work is complete, residents will have the knowledge and expertise to keep the trees alive.
All of the partners in the efforts to improve Hopewell’s stormwater runoff are aware that it’s still early — but for Battiata, progress is clear.
“We’re kind of at a point where we can begin to see the benefits,” he said.