Virginia officials are about to find out if oysters are resilient enough to grow on old toilets.
First, they are gathering as many junked porcelain toilets, bathtubs and sinks as possible.
Then, they will smash them to bits, scatter the pieces on the bottom of the Back River in Hampton and plant baby oysters on top.
There, in salty waters right at the edge of a runway at Langley Air Force Base, the babies will attach themselves and multiply, officials hope.
It would be the state’s newest — and certainly most unusual — artificial oyster reef in the lower Chesapeake Bay.
“We all laugh about it,” said Howard Burns, regional manager of Waste Management Inc., which is intercepting unwanted toilets before they reach the Big Bethel landfill in Hampton. “But you know, it’s a pretty good idea.”
The program, known as the “Porcelain Project,” brings together the state, the city of Hampton, Waste Management Inc., the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and Langley.
Lack of habitat, along with pollution, disease and overfishing, has nearly wiped out oyster stocks in the Bay.
Jim Wesson, director of oyster restoration for the Virginia Marine Resources Commission, said the agency in recent years has built more than 20 artificial reefs from used oyster shells.
But the artificial reefs have become so popular — dozens more are planned around the Bay over the next 10 years — that Virginia is running out of real shells and is looking for alternatives.
The Chesapeake 2000 Agreement calls for achieving a tenfold increase in oyster populations by 2010. Oysters help to improve water quality by filtering sediment from the water, and their reefs provide important habitat for a variety of fish and other aquatic life.
But the lack of oyster shell to create habitat is a major impediment to achieving the goal.
To make up for the lack of shell, the state tried ash from power plants.
That didn’t work.
Now it’s experimenting with porcelain and concrete. In the Rappahannock River this year, a reef will be built with ground-up concrete. The material probably will come from the demolition of Memorial Stadium, former home of the Baltimore Orioles and Baltimore Colts.
Virginia has conducted two porcelain trials since 1999, Wesson said, including a smattering of smashed toilets in the Lafayette River in Norfolk last year. Both worked beautifully.
“It really does look and act like oyster shell,” Wesson said. “There’s a slick surface on one side and a rough surface on the other.”
The state needs to collect at least a barge-full of porcelain, or about 1,000 cubic yards, before attempting the Back River project, he said.
That’s a lot of toilets.
In about six weeks of active collection, Waste Management has accumulated about 100 toilets — far short of the mark. Most of those came from a James City County housing development where contractors are installing new, environmentally friendly toilets that use less water.
If Waste Management cannot gather enough porcelain by mid-June, the end of the reef-construction season, it will wait until next year.