Environmentalists and scientists call it the “lost” branch.

The Elizabeth River’s Eastern Branch flows for 9 miles through the heart of some of the Hampton Roads region’s largest communities: Norfolk, Virginia Beach and Chesapeake. But for most residents, the waterway is seen only in glimpses — flashing past on a highway bridge or squeezing into view at the dead-end of a back road. In an indication of its singular obscurity, its Wikipedia entry peters out after four sentences.

Oyster restoration on Eastern Branch of Elizabeth River

Restoration of oyster habitat in the Eastern Branch of Virginia's Elizabeth River involved creating approximately 21 acres of hard bottom, using stones and fossilized shell fragments. (Courtesy of the Virginia Marine Resources Commission)

That veil of secrecy may be starting to lift. Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam and a pandemic-constricted entourage trekked to the Eastern Branch’s shores Nov. 19 to announce that the state has laid the groundwork for the branch’s oysters to make a comeback.

Bivalves were once so plentiful in the waterway that they were used to construct a shell-covered road through Chesapeake and Virginia Beach. But they have been largely missing in action since 1925, when bacteria-fouled waters forced the closure of commercial harvesting.

The branch was initially bypassed when Maryland and Virginia each selected five Chesapeake Bay tributaries for oyster restoration. Driven by evidence that the Baywide oyster population has fallen to less than 1% of its historic level, the states are looking to revive hundreds of acres of reefs by 2025 under the state-federal Chesapeake cleanup effort.

Then came a surprise: In March 2019, a federal settlement involving a Superfund site cleanup in nearby Portsmouth led to a $64 million windfall. Another $1.5 million was set aside for oyster restoration. In quick succession, the Eastern Branch was designated to be Virginia’s sixth tributary in late 2019, and, during a busy six weeks in July and August this year, the work was completed.

Workers created a little more than 21 acres of hard bottom, using stones and fossilized shell fragments known as “oyster hash,” said Andrew Button, who oversees oyster conservation efforts for the Virginia Marine Resources Commission.

Now, the plan is to wait and see whether oyster larvae attach themselves to their new home, he said. He is optimistic that will happen because monitoring of smaller attempts at restoration in the Eastern Branch has yielded promising results: dense clusters of oysters representing multiple year classes.

But if the oyster numbers look lean heading into spring, the state has funding remaining from that $1.5 million budget to prod nature along by “seeding” the bottom with microscopic baby oysters, also known as “spat.”

The oyster project is the latest chapter of an environmental renaissance for the Eastern Branch, said Joe Rieger, deputy director of restoration for the nonprofit Elizabeth River Project.

“It’s gone from basically being a river no one really cared about it to being one of the hottest areas for restoration” in southeastern Virginia, Rieger said. In just the past few years, the branch’s shores have been the setting of the $120 million climate retrofit of the Chesterfield Heights and Grandy Village neighborhoods, a constructed wetland being developed along West Brambleton Avenue and a spate of living shoreline projects undertaken by homeowners.

Rieger traces the turnaround to a restoration strategy authored by his group in 2014. Among its recommendations: restoring 10 acres of oyster reefs, averaging 1 acre a year from 2015–24. At the time, the report’s authors assumed that only half of the “currently restorable” bottom would, in fact, be restored — the minimum amount necessary to meet the Bay cleanup’s tributary goal.

But the 21 acres completed this summer, coupled with more than 3 acres from previous projects, bring the branch to about 100% of its restorable goal, Rieger said.

“That was one of my highlights for 2020,” he said.

The restored reefs are scattered across three sites in the waterway. With its completion, the Eastern Branch becomes the second Virginia tributary to be finished with oyster restoration work. The first was the Lafayette River in 2018. The waterway, also an Elizabeth River tributary, was replenished with 32 acres of oyster reefs, which, when combined with 48 acres of historic reefs, met the effort’s 80-acre target for the river.

The other waterways undergoing oyster restoration in Virginia are the Lynnhaven River in Virginia Beach; the Piankatank and the Lower York rivers, both in the Middle Peninsula; and Great Wicomico River in Northumberland County.

Because it’s situated near the Bay’s mouth, water in the tidal Eastern Branch tends to be more salty than fresh. That’s good news for oyster growth, Button said. But its urban surroundings could hamper the reefs, particularly if local officials and residents fail to get a handle on nutrient and sediment pollution caused by stormwater runoff. The 40-square-mile drainage basin contains more than 56,000 households and 166,000 residents.

The just-finished restoration may be on the small side, but it could offer a big lesson, Button added.

“If you can be successful there,” he said, “you can be successful anywhere.”

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