Virginia’s Elizabeth River is home to the United States’ largest naval shipyard and has long been an industrial hub. But despite its concrete villages and ironclad marinas, it has an important story of restoration and hope for those who float its waterways.

Last month, that story brought a group of private business, non-profit, and environmental agency representatives from across the state to tour its southern branch with Joe Rieger, deputy director of restoration for the Elizabeth River Project, a non-profit that has been working to restore the river since the early 1990s.

“When the Elizabeth River Project was formed, the river was considered dead,” said Rieger. “But now it’s up to an overall ‘C’ level health grade.”

The tour was part of the second session of the Virginia Natural Resources Leadership Institute (VNRLI), a program organized by the Institute for Environmental Negotiation at the University of Virginia  and Virginia Cooperative Extension; along with the Virginia Departments of Forestry, Conservation and Recreation; Environmental Quality; and Game and Inland Fiseries. The program provides year-long training on state-specific natural resource issues and conflict resolution to Virginia natural resource, energy, and infrastructure professionals.

Unlike boat tours that showcase beautiful scenery and historic landmarks, Rieger shared details about pollution management practices and environmental remediation projects as the group observed restoration sites along the river, including concrete enclosures and manmade marshes.

“You never clean up the river without knowing the source,” Rieger said. “You have to restore the whole system.”

Institute fellows heard tales of creosote removal, dredging, and concrete sequestration during the tour. Rieger spoke of how the project’s mission is to give back to the river – a river that flows out of the Chesapeake Bay and has provided protection, food, energy, and leisure activities for Virginians since before the revolutionary war.

“Water is king in Virginia,” said institute fellow Janet Weyland of the Department of Environmental Quality in Tidewater, Virginia. “I come from Utah where air and trash issues rule the floor on environmental issues.”

During session two of the Institute, participants focus on issues surrounding the Virginia’s Tidewater region, where the Chesapeake Bay rules the scene.

“Contentious issues generate strong reactions from competing interests,” said Virginia Tech agricultural and applied economics Professor Michael Ellerbrock. “At VNRLI, we develop negotiation skills among our fellows and focus on the importance of getting all stakeholders to the table.”

Chesapeake Bay stakeholders have long included manufacturing businesses, the U.S. Navy, and Virginia residents. Tidewater manufacturing industries have benefitted the economy, and the Naval Base has protected U.S. lands, but neither have come without cost – the cost of damaging the Bay’s water and air quality. Manufacturing plants have leaked creosote into the waters and the high volume of naval traffic and maintenance of the naval fleet have created other waterborne issues. Fortunately, Naval and manufacturing industries have come a long way in working with local, state, and federal environmental agencies, helping to restore the state of the Bay’s ecosystem.

Water quality in Virginia, and specifically in the Chesapeake Bay, still has a long way to go. But, with the help of leaders who know and can discuss the issues – like those who have been through the Virginia Natural Resources Leadership Institute, and those who are currently in the program – the outlook is clean and bright.


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