On a cool, cloudy morning a gusty spring wind tosses the gray-green waters of Back Bay. Here on the western shore—a spot known as Horn Point—waves sweep over a spit of land.
Broken pieces of old docks clutter the shore near signs showing entry points for kayaks and canoes. Plans are afoot to clean up this spot—with help from the Back Bay Restoration Foundation, one of our area’s environmental groups—and create a living shoreline where land and water meet in Virginia Beach’s rural south.
Our region is blessed with abundant waterways, adding beauty to our landscape and providing recreational opportunities, which increase our quality of life. Creeks, inlets, and rivers flow into the ocean, each waterway important to the growth and development of the fisheries that surround us—from the tiny menhaden in the Chesapeake Bay to the rockfish and oysters we consume. Unfortunately, industry, the military, and the explosion of neighborhoods along our waterways have challenged—and in some cases, nearly destroyed—the vitality of our waters. Thankfully, determined area women have been leading the way in efforts to restore local waterways and revitalize the native species that once flourished in our waters. Let’s meet a few of these conservationists who are cleaning up the waters.
IN OUR BACKYARD
In 1991, Marjorie Mayfield Jackson left her job as a writer at The Virginian Pilot. During a six-month sabbatical, she sought clarity about what to do with her life. Sitting in her backyard on Scott’s Creek in Portsmouth, she delighted in the beauty of the natural waterway and the sounds of frogs and birds. But the headlines reported another story—cancer in fish and toxic poisons in the Elizabeth River, the largest river in our region. Some said the river was dead, and nothing could be done about it.
At 35, Marjorie decided to clean up the Elizabeth, home to one of the busiest ports in the world. Its fragile balance of life was being snuffed out by the by-products and actions of busy marine industries, residents, and a dense urban environment. At a kitchen table in 1991, Marjorie and a few friends organized what has become a successful, well-funded non-profit, the Elizabeth River Project—with big goals and exciting partnerships.
“We were not incorporated until 1993, we were all volunteers until ’94, and I was the first staff person—and I’m still here!” Marjorie said, grinning, in ERP’s waterfront offices in downtown Portsmouth.
Nearby ERP’s solar and wind-powered floating classroom, the Learning Barge, rests at anchor. Designed and built by staff at the University of Virginia, the floating classroom has hosted 19,000 children and adults since it entered into service in 2009. Robin Dunbar, ERP’S education director who’s known locally as “Princess Elizabeth,” leads children in learning activities on the barge during the school year.
Marjorie and her staff know that education is the key to keeping the river in the minds of the children and their parents. This summer, in July and August, the Elizabeth River Project and Nauticus are teaming up to offer a camp for kids ages 8-12. Campers will experience modern technology aboard the Learning Barge and the old-world charm of the 1916 replica Schooner Virginia, recently upgraded to take on adults and children for sailing adventures.
Early enthusiasm for cleaning up an urban river developed because local families, musicians, and artists were moved to fight against pollution in their own backyards, Marjorie says. Each year Riverfest, a festival celebrating the efforts of those behind ERP, pays tribute to the organization’s successes.
Marjorie may be the “mama” of ERP, but a staff of eleven helps bring the word to the community and get the job done. Pam Boatwright, assistant director for finance and administration, pops in to the office with some exciting stats. Since 1997, 1,194 acres of habitat have been restored or conserved and more than a billion pounds of refuse have been removed from the Elizabeth River.
“I think that greening and restoration are coming to the forefront of everyone’s mind, but we have a long way to go,” Pam said. “It’s going to take everyone’s help.”
Concern about water pollution and its impact on the region’s seafood and wildlife inspire other local women whose efforts focus on smaller waterways with special challenges. The Lynnhaven River—actually a tributary of the Chesapeake Bay—was once a thriving, living ecosystem, feeding families in the early settlements of Princess Anne County. As the area grew, homes, hotels, and condos developed along the shores, while boaters, tourists, and businesses flooded the area with activity. As a result, levels of pollutants in the Lynnhaven River increased dramatically, bringing health concerns to area residents and making the river’s legendary oysters unfit to eat.
Early in the new millennium, a group of local residents formed an organization called Lynnhaven River 2007 to address the river’s bacterial levels and improve the health of marine ecosystems. Their goals? To clean up the Lynnhaven River and bring back the legendary Lynnhaven oyster. Currently known as Lynnhaven River Now, the organization continues to fight for cleaner water, and happily their efforts are paying off.
Lynnhaven River Now’s first executive director was Laurie Sorabella, who currently heads a small non-profit called Oyster Reef Keepers. Laurie also coordinates more than 8000 area students who participate in LRN’s volunteer oyster program every school year. Since 1997 students and teachers have helped transplant more than five million oysters to safe reefs in the Lynnhaven and other rivers, like the Elizabeth and the Lafayette.
Oysters are vitally important. They serve as filter feeders and can filter as much as 50 gallons of water a day. Growing in reefs, they provide the perfect habitat for smaller aquatic animals like little fish and crabs, who feed bigger water creatures. When more oysters grow, it’s good news for the river.
“It is critical to restore water quality to the rivers because if the water quality isn’t restored in the river, it can never restore the Chesapeake Bay,” Laurie said. “And any pollutant that washes off the watershed, flows into the bay, so the rivers have to be clean.”
Laurie, her husband—a science teacher—and their children, ages 7, 5 and 2, live on the water, not too far from the Lesner Bridge. They are unabashed water lovers, swimming, playing or kayaking whenever they can. Laurie knows that what happens in the 64 square miles of the Lynnhaven has a direct connection to the 64,000 miles of the Chesapeake Bay. It matters to Laurie that her children know the connection of their household habits to the health of the bay, and now her oldest child is planting seed oysters as part of a school project.
In April, Lynnhaven River Now celebrated its 10th anniversary. The members of this vital group can celebrate the renewal of the oyster population, the reduction of bacteria levels and sedimentation in the river, the encouragement of living shoreline building, and the focus on homeowners’ healthy practices in their yard and gardens—LRN’s “Pearl Homes” program, which has enrolled 500 members in just 5 months.
An important part of being a strong environmental organization is knowing when to sound an alarm. The group’s recent newsletter includes a public stand against the proposed coal plant in Surry County, potentially the largest coal burning plant in the state. Executive Director Karen Wilson Forget, who once brought her Virginia Beach Friends’ School science classes to plant oysters in the river, believes that the region would suffer from excess nitrogen and pollution from the plant.
Laurie, Karen, and their colleagues are passionate caretakers of the environmental health of our region. Lynnhaven River Now continues to offer all of us a way to participate in keeping the river, the bay, and the oceans clean.
The shoreline of Back Bay, Virginia Beach’s largest watershed, touches a third of the city’s land mass. This part of Tidewater is home to a 25-year-old non-profit, headed by Mary Tilton, a New England native who moved to this area almost two years ago. Southern Virginia Beach’s agricultural and hunting practices have impacted Back Bay, and for the last two decades, the Back Bay Restoration Foundation has focused its work on education, stewardship, and pollution prevention. This group of conservationists is a little different from many environmentalists; most of the board members are farmers, hunters, and fishing enthusiasts.
“This area was a haven for duck hunting and bass fishing all through the early 1900s , but by the 1970s, they saw that the fish weren’t around and the ducks weren’t coming back. So these folks formed a group to improve the health of Back Bay,” Mary explained.
The Blue Goose Tram Tours, which take tourists from the Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge to False Cape State Park, are run by BBRF. When visitors and residents see the rich diversity in the woods and waterways of Back Bay, it helps them appreciate this treasure. Mary embraces a new awareness of environmentally friendly farming and lawn practices, but admits there’s room for improvement.
“Many people with waterfront property like the idea of a manicured look, but that’s not best for water quality. Having a buffer between the water and your yard is really better in the long run,” Mary said. “If you get used to creating that little nature curtain with some native plantings, it can really help!”
Mary believes Back Bay is a gem for Virginia Beach. “It’s amazing for me to go up to the Lynnhaven watershed with the congestion and concrete, and then in 30 minutes, you’re in wide open spaces,” she said. “And in the winter time when the birds are migrating in tens of thousands, you see the nature that is using this place.”
What’s most exciting for Mary Tilton is the foundation’s new project, the construction of a living shoreline at Horn Point. “What we’d like to do is take away the shoreline and put in plants,” Mary said. “It will improve the ability of the shoreline to take storm events, decrease the erosion, and much more.” The Back Bay Restoration Foundation hopes to bring more attention to this precious natural area through its annual forums, fundraisers and training programs, partnering with other area non-profits, and creating opportunities for residents to help.
Sometimes it takes new eyes to see potential problems and create solutions. When Meredith Cummings, 32, left Charlotte, North Carolina, to marry a Virginia Beach man five years ago, she had no idea she was headed for a course in environmental action. An avid bird and animal lover, Meredith says she feels as though she’s on vacation every day. She and her husband live in the Shadowlawn neighborhood right beside Rudee Inlet. After learning to surf, Meredith started a women’s group, the Surfing Gals, which combines love of the sport with community action. She sees a connection between the enjoyment of the ocean and the responsibility for its cleanliness and health.
“Everyone who lives near Rudee Inlet, all the businesses and residents, have chosen to be there,” Meredith said. “The water that comes all the way from 19th street flows into our watershed. It’s so important to raise people’s awareness that everything they do affects us.”
Last July Meredith founded a non-profit called Rudee Inlet Foundation. The group’s goals are to preserve, protect, and nurture Rudee Inlet and Owl’s Creek. The organization’s first fundraiser at Rocka-feller’s Restaurant raised several thousand dollars, and Meredith is taking “baby steps,” as she moves forward.
Currently, the foundation is run by volunteers, and modest membership fees help fund the early administrative costs. RIF has a website, a board composed of local women, a Seahorse mascot in its logo, and plans for clean ups and neighborhood action initiatives. On June 2, which is Clean the Bay Day, the Rudee Inlet Foundation is hosting “Clean the Inlet Day.”
Meredith believes that everyone with a connection to the area has an obligation to keep it healthy and beautiful. Though the oceanfront is filled with hotels, restaurants, and businesses, Meredith hopes we retain natural habitat for the animals who live with us.
“I’ve always thought that you can take business and environmental needs and combine them together and make it work,” she said.
In a region connected by water, bridges, and common interests, these organizations share a vision of restoring our rivers, shorelines, tidal waters and the bays that feed the Atlantic Ocean. And the determined women behind these groups are ensuring that our waterways remain beautiful and vibrant for future generations to enjoy.
These fine organizations are always seeking new volunteers to help them in their efforts. For more information: