Blackwater Creek Extreme Stream Makeover 2009

otter-creekThe Blackwater Creek watershed needs a makeover, and the James River Association (JRA), with the help of its partners in GLEN, is making sure it gets one. This year’s annual Extreme Stream Makeover will take place the week of October 19th and will focus on improving the health of the Blackwater Creek watershed. What exactly is a watershed? According to JRA, it is a region draining into a river, river system, or any other body of water. All of the water that falls as precipitation or flows over the land as runoff in a watershed ends up in the same body of water. In other words, a watershed is a drainage area. The Blackwater Creek watershed includes any drainage area running into the creek, which then flows into the James River and on to the Chesapeake Bay.

creek-photoGLEN –the Greater Lynchburg Environmental Network – will be hosting their final spring lunch seminar Wednesday, May 20th at the Bank of the James in downtown Lynchburg with guest speaker Michelle Kokolis, JRA’s Watershed Scientist. She will be discussing the Extreme Stream Makeover initiative developed by JRA with three goals in mind: to improve the health of a local degraded watershed, to increase public awareness of upstream, local and downstream water quality issues, and to improve knowledge regarding implementation of solutions to local water quality and quantity issues on an individual or household level.

JRA was founded in 1976 and is “the oldest river conservation group in Virginia.” As “the only group working solely to protect America’s founding river,” they are attempting to improve the current and future health of the James, which is also the largest tributary in our nation. JRA is working to clean up the James River and all of its 10,000 square miles of watershed, from the headwaters in Bath and Highland counties to the mouth at the Chesapeake Bay. They do this not only by working with their Riverkeepers and scientists to identify problem areas and implement projects to improve the health of the river but also by attempting to teach best conservation practices to the over 2 ½ million people who live here.

Cleaning up the James River alone is quite an undertaking considering its area covers thirty-nine counties with 6 ½ million acres along its route. The river not only boasts the largest roosting area of Bald Eagles on the Eastern Seaboard, it is also, at Norfolk, one of the largest and busiest harbors in the world. The James River is also home to over 1/3 of the people in Virginia. Kokolis says, “Extreme Stream Makeover is just one of the initiatives JRA is working on to improve [the James River’s] water quality.”

“Extreme Stream Makeover is an annual event,” Kokolis says. Each year JRA chooses a new area in need of a makeover. This will be the third year of the project with the first two taking place in Chesterfield and Henrico Counties. This year, with the help of a recommendation by members of the GLEN board, JRA chose Blackwater Creek Watershed. Kokolis explains, “In the past, working in one locality could suffice, but because this particular watershed covers such a large area, we will be working on several projects in more than one county at once, which will be new for us.”

This year’s Extreme Stream Makeover will include multiple projects in Campbell County, with one at Wards Crossing West near the AC Moore Craft Store, one by the neighboring Wards Crossing Shopping Center near the Barnes and Nobles, at least one at Peaks View Park, and one at the Blackwater Creek Trail area. In addition, the group plans to work in Bedford County at the newly renovated Jefferson Forest High School.

Extreme Stream Makeover employs a number of landscaping and planting projects designed to improve the health of the stream in a number of ways. For example, a rain gardens is planned for Jefferson Forest High School near one of the downspouts from the roof of the new building. This garden will trap sediment and pollutants running off the building and, by filtering runoff, improve the water quality of nearby streams. The garden will also improve the look of the landscape, and it can be used by the teachers to educate their students.

Similar rain gardens are planned for several of the other sites, including Peaks View Park, where Kokolis says, “There is an area of depression where water is ponding by a parking lot. This gathers gas and oil pollutants from the cars and then washes directly into the stream when it rains.” A rain garden, Kokolis explains, “uses a bio-retention mix of top soil with sand over gravel or rock in the beds,” where a number of native species are then planted. This “helps take the runoff water into the ground, captures sediment, and the plants also capture and clean out some of the pollutants so the water runoff into the stream is cleaner.”

In addition, buffer planting is another makeover project planned for several of the sites, such as Wards Crossing West, where a natural part of the stream bank near this recently built shopping center is on the verge of collapse. Native trees and plants will be planted to stabilize the bank erosion. Not only does this trap and clean the runoff water as it flows from the parking areas into the stream, but, Kokolis says, it also improves the overall health of the stream by controlling and improving the nutrient levels and the temperature of the habitats for animals living both in the stream and on the banks.

Another of the large projects planned for this year’s Extreme Stream Makeover is a renovation and improvement of the retention pond at the Wards Crossing Shopping Center near the Barnes and Noble Bookstore. The designers of this center used best management practices when they built this retention pond to capture and clean runoff from the parking lots. Kokolis notes that over time, however, the area has become “a big grass bowl.” The water discharged from one of the main drainage pipes has eroded a deep channel through the area. That runoff now flows through the center of the pond rather than being filtered through the grasses. The group plans to grade the sides of this channel and create a sort of wetlands so the water is again able to flow out into the grasses and soak into the ground as originally intended.

Of course, none of these projects can be accomplished in just one or two days, and they will all rely on the number of volunteers who sign up between now and the week of October 19th when the final stages of work on the Extreme Stream Makeover of Blackwater Creek begins. Between now and then, members of JRA, GLEN, and other organizations will work towards completing some of the major grading and larger landscaping projects to prepare each site for the final makeover. Then, on the week of October 19th from Monday through Saturday, volunteers will work together on the most fun and rewarding parts of the project, such as planting native plants and mulching areas to create the rain gardens, buffers, and wetland areas. If you are interested in joining Extreme Stream Makeover 2009, or you would like to donate to this project, please go to this site.

If you are a regular visitor to Got2BeGreen, you may have read the previous articles entitled “The Trashing of the Ocean” and “Did You Say Whales in the Chesapeake Bay?” If so, you have begun to understand how our waterways connect us to others around the globe. The importance of cleaning up our local watersheds cannot be overstated, as each small stream connects us to bigger rivers, to our bays and tributaries, to the oceans that make up our watery planet. Everything we do in our own yards and in our daily lives affects one of our greatest resources here on earth, and we must continue to learn ways we can each keep those resources healthy for our future survival.

So what can you do to help? You can start by joining Extreme Stream Makeover, of course, but, there are a number of other things you can be doing, as well. The biggest problem for the James River comes from pollution from lawns, farms, parking lots, and development areas, so each person can help by starting at home. First and foremost, eliminate—or at the very least minimize—the use of lawn fertilizers. You can effectively help your grass grow by saving your lawn clippings and mulching with them rather than spraying toxic chemicals. Also, check your roof runoff and be sure to direct your downspouts to unpaved areas where rainwater can soak into the ground before running into the nearest stream. Rain barrels are a great way to collect this runoff and reuse it to water your gardens, thereby saving you money on the water bills.

Conserving energy is another great way to help. According to JRA, “[a]s much as 1/3 of the damaging nitrogen entering the James River and the Chesapeake Bay comes from air pollution and power plants are the major source.” Even coal fired power plants are reported to elevate mercury levels in the water, which, among other things, then causes those pesky fish advisories. Another great way to save money and help water quality is to drive less frequently. Auto emissions are a major source of air pollution, and the oils and rubber wear from our tires are major polluters of our waterways. Consider ways to combine errands and to carpool. Better yet, consider alternate means of transportation whenever possible.

Perhaps the most important thing each of us needs to do is to talk to our elected officials. We need to make them understand that clean water and clean air are important to us. We need to be sure they are willing to dedicate funding sources for these issues in the General Assembly. Please take the time to write your local and state representatives and encourage them to take these issues seriously and to work to effect change.

To learn more about cleaning up our watershed areas or about the Blackwater Creek Extreme Stream Makeover 2009, bring your lunch and come to the final GLEN spring seminar with guest speaker Michelle Kokolis on Wednesday, May 20th, 12-1 pm in the Region 2000 Conference Room on the 12th floor of the Bank of the James, 828 Main Street in downtown Lynchburg. As always, to keep informed about upcoming environmental events in Central Virginia visit the GLEN website here or join the GLEN listserv for email updates and news.

Photos coutesy of Amanda C. Sandos

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