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River Named for English Princess in Colonial Era Shows Signs of Recovery

 

By David O’Brien, Virginia Field Office, Habitat Conservation Division

Piles Installed During Jordan Bridge ConstructionPiles Installed During Jordan Bridge Construction

The Elizabeth River, which flows through southeastern Virginia, was named for its grandeur after England’s Princess Elizabeth by Capt. John Smith in the early 1600s.  This once productive ecosystem, provided food and transportation for Native Americans and the settlers of nearby Jamestown, the first permanent English settlement founded in 1607.  Unfortunately over the centuries, under increasing developmental pressures, the condition of the river has seriously deteriorated.  Due in part to efforts of the NOAA Fisheries Service Habitat Conservation Division and its partners, this once great river is now making a come-back.

During its industrial heyday, the southern branch of the Elizabeth River supported numerous creosote wood preserving operations and ship repair yards.  However, toxic spills, explosions and inadequate containment and disposal practices at these industrial operations caused extensive sediment contamination from compounds such as polyaromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) and heavy metals.  Bacterial contamination, measured by fecal coliform levels, from upland runoff and discharges from malfunctioning sewage treatment plants also contributed to the river’s placement on the Environmental Protection Agency’s list of impaired waters.  

Environmental Bucket, Turbidity Curtain And Oil Boom At Money Point ProjectEnvironmental Bucket, Turbidity Curtain And Oil Boom At Money Point Project

As a result of efforts over the last few decades, we are now beginning to reverse the effects of long-term toxic discharges and sediment contamination.  We are seeing some progress in our efforts to restore the Elizabeth River’s sediment and water quality to pre-industrial conditions.  The Elizabeth River can now be characterized as a recovering aquatic ecosystem. Vibrant salt marshes and productive oyster reefs can be found along the river in the midst of continuing industrial operations that now participate as partners in its restoration. 

Our Work

Red Drum Sampled At Money Point ProjectRed Drum Sampled At Money Point Project

NOAA Fisheries Habitat Conservation staffs ongoing work to protect and restore water quality on the Southern Branch of the Elizabeth River involves conducting environmental reviews of various activities in coordination with local industries and various state and federal natural resource and regulatory agencies including the Virginia Department of Transportation, the U.S. Navy, the Virginia Marine Resources Commission and the Norfolk District, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.   

For instance, we provided science-based conservation recommendations to the Federal Highways Administration and the Army Corps on several recent projects including the replacement of the South Norfolk Jordan Bridge, Money Point marsh creation and restoration of bottom habitat (sediment remediation), and the expansion of the Norfolk-Portsmouth Midtown Tunnel.  Our objectives in each of these projects were to help protect essential fish habitat and fish species, such as red drum, alewife, blueback herring, American shad and Atlantic sturgeon.  We did this by identifying ways to help minimize the impacts associated with construction activities such as dredging, pile driving and sediment capping -- where contaminated sediment is covered with clean fill materials like sand.  

Rock Sill, Sediment Cap And Marsh Creation At Money Point ProjectRock Sill, Sediment Cap And Marsh Creation At Money Point Project

Typically in projects like these we make recommendations to federal action agencies and industry such as the use of 1) turbidity curtains, which contain resuspended sediment within the immediate work area; 2) oil absorbing booms; 3) bubble curtains that reduce sound and pressure waves harmful or lethal to fish; 4) real time in-situ water quality monitoring for PAHs and turbidity; and 5) time of year restrictions on certain construction activities to help protect managed species, essential fish habitat and other productive and sensitive habitats such as oyster reefs.

Our Virginia Field Office staff will continue to work closely with local industry during the early design stage of new projects and with various federal action agencies during project coordination and review to help ensure future projects undertaken on the Elizabeth River accomplish the purpose and need of the project while protecting our nation’s valuable aquatic resources.