How We've Grown
Saving the world isn’t easy – especially when you have to convince people
it needs saving. In the following pages you’ll meet cyclists, artists and other activists who fight every day to make sure Tidewater remains beautiful forever.
Beating the drum on climate change isn’t easy.
In Tidewater, though, the conversation is pressing. Behind only New Orleans, we’re the U.S. metro area most vulnerable to sea level rise. The questions: What to do about it? Can we even make a difference? For these activists, academics and nonprofit leaders, the answer is simple: Show up every day. Bring folks together. Do the work.
Speaking Truth to Power
Chairman, Chesapeake Bay Group Executive Committee
The Sierra Club
After he retired from a 20-year career defending people’s rights, Joe Cook turned his attention to saving the environment.
“I grew up in the backwoods of rural south Arkansas, in the midst of a forest, streams and wildlife, and used to take those things for granted,” says Cook, who joined the Sierra Club in 1997. He became a volunteer leader for the group 10 years later, after retiring as the American Civil Liberties Union’s executive director for Louisiana.
A series of events awakened Cook’s sense of urgency on environmental stewardship: His boyhood home turned unrecognizable after timber companies felled trees, and a paper mill dumped toxic waste into the Ouachita River.
While living in Louisiana, he saw toxic waste in the Mississippi River, destroyed marshes and eroding coastlines – and that was before the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.
“I knew that when I retired, trying to save Mother Earth would be my passion for the remainder of my life,” he says.
Cook has stayed true to his word, speaking out in Tidewater on coal dust emissions and air pollution, the threats of sea level rise and risks of
offshore drilling, and the need for renewable energy, among many issues. More than once he’s become an irritant to local corporations and politicians, often serving as the spokesman for a coalition of environmental groups. For this he is unapologetic.
“We’ve got to respond with an emergency mindset,” says Cook, who battles through his own serious health threats, including chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and heart disease, to stay committed to his advocacy work.
“Mother Nature’s on life support,” he says.
“It can’t be business and profits as usual.”
Hampton Roads director
Chesapeake Bay Foundation
The thing that changed Christy Everett’s life was so small, she almost missed it. When she was a teenager, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation came to her high school, on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. The students gathered behind the building and examined a stream, brainstorming ways to protect it. They planted a tree, picked up litter and painted a sign (“No Dumping”).Simple stuff, but questions nagged at Everett long afterward: Why hadn’t she noticed the stream before? How had she never thought about the health of the waterways surrounding her?“The light bulb just went on,” she says.Today, Everett spends her professional life urging Tidewater residents, along with local and state lawmakers, to pay closer attention to how our actions affect local waterways, and encouraging people to do a better job protecting and restoring those areas. “We take our creeks and rivers, not to mention the Chesapeake Bay and the Atlantic Ocean, for granted,” she says. “We don’t realize how valuable they are.”Clean water and healthy populations of species like oysters, crab and rockfish not only help restaurants and grocery stores, they also improve property values and offer better recreational opportunities.“If you think about why people come to this area, whether to live or visit, it’s all contingent on clean water,” she says. “This isn’t just aesthetics.”And while Everett can run through an impressive series of data points proving the economic value of healthy waterways to the region, for her conservation remains a deeply personal issue, one that goes back to her afternoon by that small stream, when she realized the link between her life and the wider world.“Our waterways are a treasure, something we want our children and grandchildren to enjoy,” she says. “We have an incredible resource. We should take the time and attention to care for it.”
Benefits of the Slow Life
Founder, Eco Cycling
At some point during a 1,300-mile bike ride from Pennsylvania to Florida nearly 10 years ago, Jonathan Nye decided he needed a simpler life.Nye had recently lost his job in advertising in Philadelphia. Feeling adrift, he bought a used bike online and started down the East Coast, stopping to camp at one point at First Landing State Park. The lifestyle – the open air, the ability to stop and examine curiosities – agreed with him. When he returned to Philly, he sold his belongings and bought a sailboat. Since 2011, he’s docked that boat in Portsmouth and become part of a tight-knit community of activists in Tidewater working for a more bike-friendlycommunity. A big part of that effort involves education – teaching bikers how to navigate an area designed for cars, working with leaders to make bike paths and lanes safer and more plentiful. Recently, he’s been involved in the planning of Norfolk’s 4-mile Bike Loop and a fledgling, volunteer-run bike ambassador program.“We talk a lot about infrastructure that makes sense,” he says. “Do we really need to continue to widen roads and highways or can we build inclusive communities that are bike-friendly and connect people?”Nye hasn’t owned a car since 2008 and has no plans to get one soon.“Living life at 55 miles an hour, you miss all of the opportunities not only to meet people but also to see the butterfly or the rose, to really appreciate the environment,” he says.Even if the area isn’t a cyclist’s heaven yet, Nye thinks it could be one day.“I believe in the idea of ‘grow where you’re planted,’ ” he says. “People talk about cities on the West Coast or Charlottesville, where they are a little ahead of us, but the grass isn’t always greener. There’s work to be done here.”
Making the Case
Assistant professor of practice
ODU’s Ocean, Earth and Atmospheric Sciences Department
Michelle Covi spends a lot of time thinking about the words people use when talking about environmental issues. She prefers “challenge” to “disaster” and worries that characterizing storms and floods as hundred- or thousand-year events confuses people – and lets them off the hook. (“Well, that kind of storm won’t happen again in my lifetime …”)
A word she does like? “Empowerment.”
Through her work at ODU and with the Virginia Sea Grant extension program, Covi helps communities get environmental cooperation from all the players, including corporations, residents, civic groups, academic institutions and lawmakers.
Her dual role as researcher and communicator represents new ground for scientists, who in the past presented their research on climate change but left to others the work of finding solutions.
“One of the most difficult things about communicating about climate change is that we are moving into a different world than we’ve ever experienced,” she says. “There’s a lot of uncertainty.”
The search for answers, combine with the size of the problem, can lead to a kind of fatalism. City leaders and residents clam up: “If we talk about it, won’t we scare off businesses and tourists?”
“What can I do to stop all this flooding, anyway?”
“Maybe it’s God’s will.”
That’s why Covi wants everyone to talk more. She spent more than a decade in Illinois working with city governments and nonprofits to improve recycling programs, an effort she sees as a model for other environmental areas.
“People under 30 cannot just throw something away,” she says. “They want to recycle it. I think kids growing up today will feel the same way about solutions we’re working on now.”
Many of those solutions fall under a “green-gray” umbrella of infrastructure development, she says, including the city of Norfolk’s collaboration with the Elizabeth River Project to create a berm that prevents nuisance flooding while protecting the living shoreline along the Ohio Creek Watershed, near Norfolk State University.
“The impacts of climate change go beyond what one person can do,” she says. “You can raise your house, but if the street floods, your home is still inaccessible. There is this feeling that we need to be thinking bigger, beyond small, individual fixes. We need to get more citizens involved. We need community solutions.”
Christine Harris Sculpture
Christine Harris started hearing about declining bee populations several years ago.
Worldwide, scientists had been noticing dwindling bee colonies, with causes thought to include a combination of factors: disease, pesticides, climate change, loss of habitat. The issue resonated with Harris. Bees are pollinators, and a threat to them is a threat to the global food supply. So she turned to art to express her voice. Through sculpture, she shares a message: What impacts one part of the ecosystem affects us all.
“Their demise and our demise are linked,” she says. “We are connected, all of us.”
Harris, 47, says her sculptures reflect a concern for threatened and endangered species and the connection between people and nature. She explores a range of subjects in her work – from the use of horseshoe crab blood in medical testing to the hunting of rare albino deer in the Midwest.
A Chesapeake native and resident, Harris earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology and art from Virginia Wesleyan College and a master’s in art therapy from Eastern Virginia Medical School. She has worked as an art therapist throughout Tidewater.
Harris said her work has evolved over time, from two-dimensional mixed-media collages to three-dimensional sculpture. She makes her pieces with resin, polymer clay and acrylic paint, often incorporating found objects such as dandelion seeds or bits of wood.
Her work is immediately recognizable. The sculptures are “hybrids,” part creature, part human. They are often winged insects, with large eyes that draw the viewer in. Some have six arms and a third eye in their forehead, drawing on Harris’ interest in mythology.
The torsos of Harris’ creatures depict a human face, a reminder that we are all connected, she says. Some of her hybrids fuse trees and humans, a reflection on our tie to the land.
In the piece Interconnected, from the series on bee decline, Harris shows a queen bee holding a skull, seeds and an hourglass. In the torso: a woman’s face, eyes closed. The woman represents us, Harris says, our eyes shut in denial.
In Killer Bee, a winged bee with six arms looks down at dandelion seeds in her hands. Her torso is a skull, honeycomb in its eye sockets. Harris says it represents colony collapse disorder, a phenomenon in which worker bees disappear from a hive, eventually causing the colony to die. Researchers believe pesticides, stress and disease are among the possible causes.
Harris hopes her works will motivate others to learn more about the subject and take action. “I want them to be excited about nature,” she says. “I think that excitement will lead to them saying, ‘I don’t want anything to happen to this planet.’ ”
DONNA IONA DROZDA
Painter and Mixed-Media Artist
In 2010, Donna Iona Drozda’s partner bought 50 acres of land in central Virginia.
The swath of forest had been clear-cut, the trees chopped down to feed the logging industry. What remained were piles of debris and tree stumps laid bare. It was a barren zone surrounded by old forest along a creek protected by the Environmental Protection Agency.
Drozda’s partner, Brenda Davidson, purchased the property with the hope they could watch it re-grow. They were heartbroken to see what logging had done – trees hauled away on trucks. “It’s brutal,” Drozda says.
But what struck her most was the way the forest began to “heal” itself, growing wild. New grasses and trees sprouted. In time, rabbits, deer, coyotes, foxes, bears and bobcats returned.
“It gave me a lot of hope,” she says.
In her series Roots and Wings / Reclamation, Drozda explores the delicate balance of the natural world around her. She reflects on resources, cultivation and consumption. Through mixed media and bright acrylics on large canvas, she paints about rebirth.
For Drozda, 68, it’s a metaphor for life. We all encounter challenges that make us feel cut down. But from that, Drozda says, we can re-grow if we find our roots. Sometimes, nature itself can help us recover from our traumas.
“Nature has the potential to heal us,” she says. “How does nature impact you when you take the time to visit?”
An art activist, Drozda has had many roles in her career, from owning a gallery to serving as an artist-in-residence at Cuyahoga Valley National Park in Ohio.
She’s lived in Virginia Beach for more than 20 years and works as a statewide educator for Richmond’s Virginia Museum of Fine Arts and as a faculty member for the Virginia Museum of Contemporary Art here, where she designs programs for adults and children.
Often, Drozda takes her young students onto the grounds surrounding MOCA, where they learn to identify the different environments and forms of life in creeks, marshes and ponds. They talk about what the land looked like long ago, what it is now and what it could become based on our presence here, she says.
“We think about our footprint, and we think about doing things consciously,” she says. “Being thoughtful and being connected to one’s environment makes us more caring.”
Take a walk early in the morning and you may catch Christopher Revels in action. About 5 a.m. most days, he leaves his apartment on the Hague and makes a three-mile loop through downtown, carrying with him a satchel full of chalk.
His canvas: the streets and sidewalks of Norfolk.
In bright pinks, blues and yellows, Revels draws Walking Houses, a series of simple homes with windows and smoking chimneys. The whimsical dwellings walk on four spindly, stilt-like legs above blue waves – a reminder of Tidewater’s symbiotic relationship with water.
Revels drew more than 1,000 of them in 2016. They serve as a warning about sea level rise. He wants people to see them and start thinking critically about the future. “You can’t adjust the sea, but you can adjust the way you live,” he says. “I hope we start thinking for others instead of just here and now.”
Revels moved to Virginia with his family in 1992. He graduated from the Governor’s School for the Arts – where he now teaches – and also attended Virginia Commonwealth University for two years. He moved to Norfolk from Richmond in 2013.
Revels, 33, has been involved in numerous community efforts, including Norfolk’s NEON Festival and the “Better Block” revitalization project.
For Better Block a few years ago, Revels built three-dimensional walking houses out of wood. He painted some with chalk paint, and encouraged people to write messages on the houses.
Later, he was drawing chalk on the sidewalk with his roommate’s daughter when he discovered the new medium. Since then, hundreds have appeared throughout the city: near the Hague footbridge in Ghent, next to the battleship
Wisconsin, outside businesses on Granby Street.
It doesn’t take long for Revels to put them there. Chalk in hand, he outlines a roof and walls, followed by windows, a door and a chimney. When he’s done, he steps back, snaps a photo with his phone and uploads to Instagram, where he keeps a digital record of nearly every walking house.
Passers-by sometimes stop to watch Revels or ask him about his art. He’s more than happy to explain. It’s an issue he’s familiar with. Last summer, his sister lost her home in Louisiana during record-breaking flooding. “Water affects us all,” he says.
And one of the beauties in Revels’ work is that it’s never permanent. Eventually, rain and floodwaters wash it away. And Revels can begin sharing his message again.
by Mari Krueger // photography by Adam Ewing
Paul Forehand jumped off his bike and walked it down the ramp to the floating boat dock, right onto the deck of the Elizabeth River Ferry. The boat blasted its departure signal and pushed off into the twilight.
The trip across was calm, its quiet broken only by the splash of water and the occasional sound of foghorns talking back and forth. On the river, the crammed tunnel traffic that used to make up Forehand’s 45-minute trip from Portsmouth seemed a world away.
Forehand did the standard car ride most of his career, until a new job took him to downtown Norfolk. It was a dream opportunity but a nightmare commute. So about 10 years ago he bought his now-famous pith helmet from a military surplus store, hopped onto his bike and never looked back.
Pedaling to work not only saves him 15 minutes, it also leaves him feeling refreshed, instead of stressed or angry. “There’s never a jam on the ferry,” he says. “Almost every crossing there’s something remarkable to see.”
He and other pioneers are beneficiaries of a developing sea change in Tidewater. Over the past decade, biking advocates – a group that includes city leaders, biking organizations and hundreds of true believers (the “spandex mafia”) – have fought to make Tidewater more biker friendly. And finally, after years of work and hundreds of thousands of dollars of research and planning, the first signs of real progress are popping up around the region.
There’s the 4-mile pilot loop circling Ghent that debuted in October, the result of a proposal from the city’s Strategic Bike and Pedestrian Plan adopted in December 2015. The trek runs along Llewellyn Avenue, West Olney Road, Colley Avenue and 35th Street and provides a preview of future bike lane improvements around the city.
Suffolk opened a stretch of the Seaboard Coastal Trail in 2015, around the same time Norfolk’s Elizabeth River Trail, along the waterfront, added ground. Norfolk’s Granby Street bridge got a bike-friendly makeover in late 2016 with a new buffered bike lane. Chesapeake’s Dominion Boulevard bridge opened its new multi-use path in November. And in the works now are paths along both sides of the Lesner Bridge on Shore Drive at the Beach and a mix of projects to make biking safer down Shore Drive and Portsmouth’s High Street bridge.
So much work has been done that since 2014, Norfolk, Portsmouth and Virginia Beach have all received bronze medals as bicycle friendly communities from the League of American Bicyclists (see each city’s report card at BikeLeague.org/bfa/awards#community).
Norfolk is a bit further along than its peers. The city’s strategic plan is a huge step in the right direction, and Norfolk’s age is actually an advantage. Older communities like Ghent have narrower streets, lower speed limits, and short distances between homes and shops – ideal for biking.
Virginia Beach and Chesapeake grew a lot after World War II, thanks in part to increased automobile ownership. This has created an
environment that offers more obstacles, such as congested multilane roads with high speed limits and longer distances to travel.
Forehand, Norfolk’s bike and pedestrian coordinator, has watched the city transform over the past decade. City Council members and the community alike have bought into the idea of making – and using – alternate modes of transportation, with the council investing $250,000 annually in implementing the strategic biking plan.
Success has come by folding new bike lanes into planned improvements, like resurfacing roads. It takes time to see widespread progress, but this approach is the most cost-effective way to get it done. The bridges especially are key, because traveling more than 10 miles across Hampton Roads usually requires crossing a sizable body of water.
“Everyone is thinking in the same direction,” Forehand says. “We’ve got the mindset of ‘This is something we’re going to do.’ ”
Drew Ungvarsky held the heavy front door open with one hand and slid his bike through with the other. On the sidewalk in front of Grow, the digital agency he founded, he checked traffic and pedaled onto Granby Street.
The ride was smooth, but he is always careful. Years ago, a car passed him on Granby and took a sharp right turn into his path. Ungvarsky couldn’t stop in time and flew over the hood and onto the pavement (he and his bike were fine). That was before the street had “sharrows” – the double-arrow and bike markings on the pavement – but still he is vigilant.
Ungvarsky savors the ride home, sure, but he is also serious about lessening congestion, so much that he encourages his employees to follow his lead and bike to work. Like many downtown businesses, Grow pays for employee parking spaces, but he also offers his workers a financial incentive to leave their cars at home.
Grow employees who bike or take the bus pocket the money Ungvarsky would have paid for them to park, a perk worth nearly $1,000 a year for each. He hopes the extra incentive will raise awareness, and resources, for more biking infrastructure.
“The more support there is for that, the more it happens,” he says. “And the more it happens, the more we want to support that.”
He’s not the only one investing in the biking community. As with many campuses around the country, bikes are common at Old Dominion University. Eddie Hill, an assistant professor of human movement sciences, came to ODU from State University of New York in Cortland in 2011, bringing the idea of a bike share.
Since then, the program has grown from three to 150 bikes that can be checked out from the school’s outdoor adventure department for up to a week at a time. There’s also a campus bike lab where students can get help fixing and maintaining their cycles.
A bike share proposal rattled around downtown Norfolk for a few years around the same time the ODU program got up and running. Ultimately it was determined that the interest and infrastructure downtown didn’t yet exist to ensure sustainability.
The campus has bike racks, protected paths and lots of bikers, which is good, but this means it is probably time to step up biking education. Hill says he’d like to see more emphasis put on safe practices for both drivers and bikers.
It takes behavioral change for drivers to watch for bikers. And that’s further complicated when bikers don’t follow traffic laws – blowing through red lights, for example, or riding against traffic.
“We have to make sure we’re riding safely and obeying the rules of the road from both ends,” he says. “It doesn’t happen overnight.
It takes time.”
But there’s a lot of hope.
“There are definitely ways to do it if you want to make it work,” Hill says.
Biking isn’t just Wesley Cheney’s commute; it’s his job. He might cover 18 miles leading a pack of German tourists on bikes from downtown to Larchmont and back, or 40 miles in a day of delivering Jimmy John’s sandwiches around ODU and commuting from his home near Wards Corner.
In two decades of biking around Norfolk, Cheney has seen bicycling increase from strictly hardcore enthusiasts to people riding with their families or for utility: to work, to dinner, even toting groceries.
Cheney was a founding member of Bike Norfolk, a biking support group that garnered several seats on the Biking and
Pedestrian Trails Commission. So he saw firsthand how enthusiasm resulted in paint on the ground in the form of bike lanes and sharrows.
But often, high-traffic, high-speed roads leave no safe crossing for bikers or pedestrians. Biking down Military Highway, for example, is tempting fate. And multiple car-bike collisions – including fatalities – on Shore Drive proved the need for greater safety measures for bikers, measures that are now in the works.
“For people who just want to ride their bike to the library, or take their kids to the beach, they don’t see a safe way to do it, so they just go back to driving,” Cheney says. “That’s a big roadblock. It’s kind of a relic of the whole interstate system. They were put in with one mode of traffic in mind. I don’t think it’s insurmountable, but I don’t know that the political will exists yet to make it happen.”
Wards Corner is going to be a testing ground for pedestrian-friendly freeway crossings. As it stands now, there’s no way to make a safe crossing, but planned improvements will move guard rails and create paths along Granby Street underneath Interstate 64. Making Granby bikeable from downtown to Ocean View would be a real success story, in Cheney’s eyes.
“What’s going to make the difference is people being loud and speaking out,” he says.
The Tidewater Bicycle Association went a step further, providing more than $22,000 in grants to bicycling initiatives in South Hampton Roads in 2016. Those funds include nearly $8,000 to the Hampton Roads Transportation Planning Organization to fund Strava Metro data, $10,000 for bicycle counters to use on the Ghent pilot loop and safety initiatives for the city of Norfolk, and almost $5,000 for the city of Virginia Beach to develop bicycle education.
And it doesn’t stop there. Bruce Drees, the association’s president, spent an overcast fall day collecting four bikes that had been donated to the TBA. They were a couple decades old, but they still had plenty of life – and purpose. Drees dropped them off at the Bike Ministry at Virginia Beach United Methodist Church, which fixes about 1,000 and donates more than 200 bikes each year to people who need them to get to work.
He was excited about what he considers a game changer for biking in Tidewater: the South Hampton Roads Trail. It will offer more than 40 miles of trails, connecting four of the region’s five downtown districts as well as the light rail and other public transit. Drees was encouraged by the progress the region has made. He had a lot of hope for the future and figured the trail could be ready within five years.
“Now that there’s been a very positive public response to what’s planned, we’re starting to get more resources, which is helping to accelerate things,” he said. “Little by little, things are coming around.”
by Dianne Tennant // photography by Eric Lusher
They thought the Elizabeth River was hopeless. Marjorie Mayfield Jackson proved them wrong.
Twenty-six years ago, herons redirected Marjorie Mayfield Jackson’s life.
One was a night heron, nesting in a mulberry tree in her backyard along the Elizabeth River. The other was a great blue heron, stalking fish in the shallows.
Jackson had been feeling unfulfilled in her newspaper reporting job and wanted to make a difference in the world.
“At that time, the studies were coming out about cancer in the fish in the Elizabeth River,” Jackson says. “And you know, people told me the river was dead. They didn’t even know the name of it. It was just ‘that sewer’ to them, that hopeless sewer. But where I lived it was beautiful, and obviously very much alive. It just came to me that what I really wanted to do with my life was clean up the river.”
One woman sitting in her yard became four people gathered around a kitchen table, discussing solutions. From that simple origin rose the Elizabeth River Project, a collaboration of businesses, industry, government and citizens that has become an international model for collective action.
What started as a volunteer effort now operates with a staff of 14 and an annual budget of $2.8 million. More important, the river is cleaner. Tons
of hazardous material have been dredged from some of the most polluted spots on the river bottom.
Cancer levels in fish have dropped from 81 percent to less than 4 percent in key hotspots. The variety of fish and animal species in those locations has increased from four to 26. Abandoned vessels have been removed, a park created, pollution-filtering wetlands restored.
Jackson has done the impossible.
And she isn’t finished.
The Elizabeth River had a reputation, and it wasn’t a good one. It was one of the most polluted waterways in the country. Its shores were lined with heavy industry, its bottom pocked with hazardous sludge. Bacterial contamination had led to the banning of shellfish harvesting since the mid-1920s.
The federal Clean Water Act of the 1970s required permits and set minimum standards for discharges into the river, but the big problem on the Elizabeth was legacy pollution – creosote and other hazardous waste that had gone into the river years earlier.
“The government was doing what it could,”
Jackson says, “but there was no community effort or interest at the time, which was what made it so exciting to me. It was this impossible thing.”
The Elizabeth River Project didn’t file any lawsuits. It didn’t accuse anyone of anything and it didn’t demand penalties or stricter regulations. It simply asked people to do the right thing for the river.
“The first decision that we made, and central to us ever since, was to decide – and this was radical at the time – to be a collaborative, non-finger-pointing environmental effort,” Jackson says. “We thought on this river, one of the most industrialized in America, with the world’s largest navy base, the world’s largest coal exporting facility, you’re not
going to put the cow back in the barn. You’re going to have to work positively with the powerful interests on the river.
“There’s always some point where interests coincide between somebody who is potentially impacting the river and those of us who are trying to restore it. You just try to find that common ground.”
ERP started by asking people whether they would support a cleanup. Enough citizens and businesses said yes to earn a small planning grant from the Environmental Protection Agency. Jackson and a small group of volunteers used it to recruit 120 people to form committees representing science and technology, business, government, and private
citizens. Each committee prepared reports about the river’s problems and possible solutions, and presented them to all the other committees.
Through work sessions and overnight retreats, clam bakes and beer, people who might have been traditional adversaries got to know each other, came to understand each other’s point of view and, after four years of work, created the first action plan for cleaning up the river.
The plan was presented to the public in 1996 by famed CBS broadcaster Charles Kuralt, before 400 people at Nauticus, overlooking the river. It was so thorough that the state adopted the document as its official plan, too, including its 18 priorities for action.
More recent plans have narrowed the focus – the 2016 Watershed Action Plan has just five priorities. But with the initial blueprint in hand, and consensus all around, the ERP was ready to dive in and get started.
First came River Star Businesses, an ERP program that started in 1997 and was designed to assist and advise businesses in the watershed on how best to incorporate habitat protection into their business plans.
It started small, on the river’s Southern Branch, with one shipyard restoring a wetland on its property. Now 114 businesses volunteer to restore wildlife habitat or reduce pollution. They are publicly recognized and applauded for their efforts each year.
Phil Stedfast, operations manager for energy company Kinder Morgan, obtained his employer’s permission to work with ERP to restore about 15 acres of upland forest and wetlands on company property. Schoolchildren were involved, too, growing marsh grasses in their classrooms and planting them in the spring.
Stedfast, who is now vice president of ERP’s board of directors, enjoys the educational aspects of such projects.
“It reflects well on the company, it’s good for morale, and it’s good for the immediate area and the environment,” he says. “There are five Kinder Morgan locations I’m working with to try to help them get some sort of project going.”
Next came River Star Homes, a program designed to reduce runoff. Because the Elizabeth River Project can document that River Star Homes reduces pollution, grant funding has come in
for cost-sharing on yard makeovers. To enroll, homeowners agree to simple steps such as limiting use of fertilizers on lawns, cleaning up after their dogs, and not pouring grease down the sink. To date, 3,200 homes have become River Stars.
In 2009, the project debuted the Learning Barge, a solar- and wind-powered traveling wetlands classroom where about 6,000 schoolchildren a year learn environmental stewardship.
“Educating the children who inherit the river is pretty important,” Jackson says. Designed by the University of Virginia, the Learning Barge recently received a $500,000 grant, one of five given nationwide by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, to teach about sea-level rise.
The biggest cleanup so far exemplifies the Elizabeth River Project’s win-win approach. When APM Terminals wanted to dredge 10 million cubic yards from one of the cleanest parts of the river to build a port facility, it set aside $5 million to pay for another dredging project dear to Jackson’s heart – the removal of tons of contaminated sediment from the river bottom at Money Point.
The point, on the river’s Southern Branch, was a cancer hotspot, in part because of creosote that flowed into the river during an industrial fire in 1963. The ERP had been trying to raise public interest and awareness with the slogans “The Goo Must Go” and “Ask Me About Elizabeth’s Bottom” but lacked funds for the massive cleanup.
“The normal approach would be sue, blame, fight,” Jackson says. “We tried to think about what we could do so the river would still come out ahead, but APM Terminals would get its facility.”
With more than $2 million in public and private grants added to the company’s millions, the most contaminated regions were dredged, clean sand put down, wetlands planted and oysters restored. Animal life has rebounded and cancer rates in fish have plummeted. ERP has spent more than $7 million on Money Point, and its business partners have spent an additional $3 million on related cleanups.
Impressed, the Environmental Protection Agency asked ERP to write a guidebook about its methods. That 82-page book, Balancing Industry and the Environment: How to Achieve Win-Win on the Industrial Waterfront, was published in 2008.
Since then, groups from around the world have contacted ERP for guidance and advice on cleanup projects of their own, and the Stanford Social Review, in 2011, cited the ERP as one of the country’s best examples of getting disparate interests to work together on a community project.
The successes are satisfying to Jackson, but she and her partners aren’t done.
The ERP is starting work on the river’s Eastern Branch, including Indian River and Broad Creek, which have high levels of fecal bacteria. Stormwater runoff is a problem, washing oil and dirt from roads and other paved areas, and fertilizers and pesticides from treated yards. The cities are pitching in to help, looking for leaks in aging sewer pipelines.
All these problems are complicated by municipal stormwater drains, which were designed decades ago to carry runoff as quickly as possible into the river, without filtering.
Still, Jackson is happy with Paradise Creek
Nature Park, a restored area just south of the Jordan Bridge, which the Elizabeth River Project created and donated to the city of Portsmouth for public use and education. The Money Point cleanup is a tremendous satisfaction. So is reducing bacteria in the Lafayette to the extent that that branch of the Elizabeth has been removed from the state’s list of impaired waters.
“Some things are less tangible,” Jackson says, “like the fact that nobody ever tells me the river’s dead anymore. And people do know its name. So just to have shifted how people feel about their home river, and all the thousands of schoolchildren who now grow up wanting to be good river stewards instead of thinking they live on a sewer, and all these homeowners, thousands of them, who are feeling empowered to do the right thing in their own yards. It’s exciting.”
Frank Daniel has seen the effort from both sides. He joined the group’s board as soon as he retired from his job as regional director for the state Department of Environmental Quality. The project’s dedication is outstanding, he says, from the board to the staff to its executive director, Jackson.
“And that’s what it takes,” he says. “It takes a bunch of people believing in something and coming together, and putting the effort forward. That’s been the story of the Elizabeth River Project from the beginning.”