Let it flow

Let it flow

One recent afternoon, a friend and I put in on the Rivanna and for the next three hours floated down its mellifluous waters. Up in the front of the canoe, my friend acted as guide to my rudder. Settled in, we paddled into the gentle current near the river’s middle and then sat back and let the water pull us down its belly.

More about the Rivanna River:

On either side, muddy banks loomed, at least 15′ high, the product of centuries of erosion. Trees dotted the crest and their branches shot out over the water, as if they were protecting it from overhead view. A goose eyed us suspiciously as we paddled towards him. He flew off, cursing us in his wake.

Along the way we encountered a number of characters. Around one bend we spotted three teens on the left bank. They waved us over and we pulled up on the side of the steep bank, still in the water. A girl was holding a guitar. “Who plays that?” I asked. “Whoever’s holding it,” she replied.

Back on the river, my friend and I came upon a sandy isle and got out. There were shells and rocks everywhere. Across the river we could see a golf course and someone called to us from a green, “It’s a great afternoon for it.”

Below that guy, a metal pipe jutted out of the towering bank, leaking into the river like an open sore. “I bet whatever they put on those greens comes right out there,” my friend said.

The 16 mile stretch of the Rivanna at the heart of the city and the heart of the watershed has been listed as “impaired” by the DEQ. What used to be the center of Charlotteville’s commerce and then its primary drinking source has become a mere curiousity and a polluted, poopy one at that.

Up ahead, we could see small rapids and after cascading over, looked back to see a beaver swimming towards the disturbance. He frisked in it, his head bobbing above the frothy currents. It looked fun.  

Up around another bend, we could see the setting sun cutting through the shadows and the river shimmering like molten glass in its wane. We came around the corner, eluding the branches hanging over us, and were sucked right into the swell, heading straight into the iridescent sun. As we did, we basked, blinded by the light.   

An hour later, we docked right above the dam at Woolen Mills (on Market Street), satiated by what the Rivanna had to offer—we had seen numerous bird species, not to mention three beavers, and were followed by two bats for a while. But sadly, we were also conscious of the river’s ails.

In 1996, a 16-mile stretch of the Rivanna River was listed as impaired by Virginia’s Department of Environmental Quality. Why? Unsafe levels of bacteria, specifically, E. Coli and Fecal Coliform. But shit in the water is only part of the problem. Two-hundred and fifty years of development have left the Rivanna full of sediment and chemicals—a sick shallow shadow of the mighty waterway that once supported the area’s commerce and helped change Albemarle from an isolated region into a bustling center of business.   

With the help of volunteers, StreamWatch collects samples of Sowbugs, fly larvae and other creepy crawlies to check the Rivanna’s livability.

“It’s at the heart of the city and the heart of the Rivanna watershed,” says John Murphy of StreamWatch, a local group that tests the streams of the watershed for their ability to support aquatic life. Originating from headwaters on the eastern slopes of the Blue Ridge Mountains, and fed by the rivers, streams and creeks that slice through the watershed, the main stem of the Rivanna is formed by the river’s two forks, which merge to flow southeast through the Piedmont into the James River. It is also precisely where the two forks meet that the impaired stretch of the Rivanna begins. It runs to the right of town past Glenmore, where the 16-mile impairment identified by the DEQ ends.

Eventually it all empties into the Chesapeake watershed and ends up in the ocean by way of the Tidewater region. It is there, where fresh water meets salt, that settlers first took root 400 years ago. They eventually made their way up the river, settling in the Rivanna region in the early 18th century.

Albemarle County was established in 1744, and Charlottesville in 1762. Three years later, native son Thomas Jefferson initiated a 1765 General Assembly act that called for making the Rivanna navigable from its mouth to a point three-fourths of a mile below his mill at Shadwell. The legislation made sense as it opened up the river to extended canoe transport, and thus, commerce of items like tobacco, wheat and flour. The burgeoning statesmen now had cash flow to support his political ambitions.

“The Rivanna River had never been used for navigation, scarcely an empty canoe had ever passed down it,” Jefferson wrote. “Soon after I came of age I examined it’s [sic] obstructions, set on foot a subscription for removing them. Got an act of assembly past [passed] & the thing effected, so as to be used completely & fully for carrying down all our produce.”

Jefferson’s change marked some of the first human intrusion upon the river. Sure, Native Americans had used it for centuries, but Jefferson made actual alterations to improve the Rivanna’s thoroughfare, going so far as to blast “sluices” that increased the depth and direction of the main channels.

Of course, settlers also altered the landscape of the Rivanna watershed, sometimes in drastic ways. A common practice in the early to mid-18th century was the so-called “slash-and-burn” method of planting, where farmers would clear wide swaths of forest, burn the slash, and cultivate tobacco. After three or four years, farmers would move on to a new patch of earth, leaving behind nutrient-starved soil.

Advertisement—story continues below

By the late 1700s, the Rivanna was the scene of a thriving mill industry necessary to process the grains that were increasingly in demand as provisions for the Revolutionary War. Mill towns sprouted all along the river in places like Shadwell, or Milton where Jefferson’s mill delivered its supplies to market. In 1806, the Rivanna Navigation Company made more improvements to allow larger boats to navigate up the river by creating an elaborate canal system of wooden locks and dams extending from the James to Woolen Mills (at the end of Market Street).

The sudden rise of the railroad in the latter part of the 19th century meant the end of the Rivanna’s life as a center of commerce. In its next incarnation, the river became Charlottesville’s primary source of drinking water. The first reservoir was built at Ragged Mountain in 1885, followed by Sugar Hollow Dam on the Moorman’s River. A bustling post-World War II Charlottesville needed even more drinking water and so the South Fork Reservoir was built in 1966.

At the same time, Albemarle County (and neighboring counties to a lesser extent) was undergoing an incredible influx of people. Albemarle grew by 47 percent in the 1970s alone, almost doubling its population in one decade. Since then, the county has grown at a rate that has hovered around 20 percent, and the Virginia Economic Development Partnership predicts the county will grow another 11 percent to over 96,000 people by 2010. Between 1990 and 2000, Fluvanna County exploded by 61 percent, with another 32 percent expected by decade’s end. Today, approximately 140,000 people live in the watershed, primarily in Charlottesville and Albemarle.
Man’s mark

A few hundred years in the life of a river is insignificant unless it is of the volume of intrusion the Rivanna endured once European settlers arrived. In many ways, the river’s recent story is the story of man. Much of nature lives in balance. There is an order that is obeyed and man is at the top of it. “Human beings are part of nature,” observes Ridge Schuyler of the Nature Conservancy. “We have an unparalleled ability to change the environment.”

The Monacan tribe was known to routinely burn upland forests to make hunting easier, and the settlers and their progeny followed suit, exploiting the land acre by acre. If you wanted to grow corn in a flood basin and that meant redirecting a stream into a straight ditch, you did it. The fact that it poured silt and sediment into the Rivanna was never a consideration. The river irrigated your crops and that’s all that mattered.

Like a bridge over troubled water: Ridge Schuyler director of the Nature Conservancy’s Piedmont Program oversees Rivanna restoration projects but urges preventive measures like planting buffers along the river banks.

“What was done was for completely understandable reasons,” Schuyler says. As director of the Nature Conservancy’s Piedmont Program, he oversaw the restoration of a stream and its floodplain off Route 29N two years ago. Fifty or even a hundred years before, a previous landowner redirected the stream’s path and installed Terra Cotta pipes under the ground to drain the land. “We went and found those pipes and busted them,” says Schuyler. “We restored a massive wetland on that property by just undoing what we humans did. 

“The restoration of that was fairly straightforward,” he recalls. “The restoration of the stream can be a lot more difficult because there’s been a physical alteration.” Money is also an issue as Schuyler estimates that it cost $225 per linear foot for a total of $675,000 to repair the streambed. 

“It does bring right into sharp relief the need to prevent rather than restore,” he says. “The ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. For $7 a linear foot you can plant a buffer.”

One morning, I followed Schuyler as he led me along the redirected brook winding its way through the landscape. At one bend he stopped to point out the terraced banks the Conservancy had installed. They were covered with grass mats that prevent the banks from dissolving into the rushing water. “When the water comes up, it’s redirected back down,” he says. “That slows the energy. 

“The force of the water has created streams that are now 15′ below where they used to be, so that there’s no access to the floodplain,” Schuyler says. As a result, the redirected stream basically operated as a funnel for mud and dirt.

“All of the dirt that used to be on either side of this ended up in the Rivanna,” Schuyler said as he waved his hand across the dirty creek banks. “And this scene is replicated on streams and tributaries throughout the watershed.”

Suddenly we are on a rise overlooking the muddy river the redirected stream feeds into. Only three or four days removed from a violent storm, the Rivanna hums along, its deep channels alive. Just ahead, the North and South Forks meet to create the river’s main stem, which flows through the city of Charlottesville. Before cars and roads, this is what connected us to the rest of the world. Now the river is a mere curiosity, as commonplace as the rain that runs down the curb, into the storm drains and through a pipe right into the Rivanna. 

“It’s not practical to try and restore all the stream banks in the Rivanna Basin,” says StreamWatch President John Murphy. “It would take an astronomical amount of money.” StreamWatch operates on a rather meager budget and consequently is only able to afford two three-quarter-time staff of which he is one. Founded by Murphy in 2002, the group has quickly contributed to the clean-up effort by collecting samples from the waterways that flow into the Rivanna. “About half of the tributaries are impaired throughout the whole basin,” he says. StreamWatch delivers the results of their collection to DEQ, which, according to Murphy, has committed to follow-up monitoring at 19 sites on the basis of StreamWatch findings. “We continue to nominate additional sites for DEQ follow-up,” he says.

The morning after going down the river, I collected stream samples with StreamWatch’s other employee, Rose Brown, arriving at the pebbled shore of Buck Island Creek to find her and two volunteers crowded around a small fold-up table sifting through the refuse they had just caught in their net. With small blue pincers they arduously picked through leaves and pebbles to find aquatic life like Sowbugs and Mayflys and large Diptera True Fly larva. Dropped in ice cube trays filled with water, the tiny bugs crawled along the bottom, barely disturbed. Nearby, the white lumpy larva wriggled in a Tupperware container full of water. 

“When we’re done counting and assorting, if we can identify them, we’ll put them back,” Brown says. She was working at the Nature Conservancy when she learned of StreamWatch. Along with a loose network of 50 volunteers, she and Murphy regularly take samples of the aquatic life in streams all along the Rivanna watershed. Each time out, they are asked to collect 200 critters.   

“We generally have to preserve a few from each sample,” Rose explained, combing through the muck to find bugs where I only saw dust. “So we have to kill them, we put them in alcohol.”

All around us, life bustled. The sun slipped through the leaves and branches and onto the water that percolated over the rocks I was stirring with my hands. “O.K., now rake your fingers through them, like this,” a volunteer said, moving her hand vigorously side to side. I complied, watching everything from leaves to silt to random bug-life drifting into the net she held.

Back over at the table, another volunteer thoroughly picked at the net until she found an insect of some sort that she dropped into the ice tray where it joined its species. Bugs tell everything about the condition of the water. Certain of them live in certain pollutants. Consequently, they are an excellent indicator of contaminant levels. The life at Buck Island was encouraging. These insects were healthy and active. In the bowl, the larva tussled, the smaller one wrapped around the more formidable, holding on for its tenuous existence.  
Turning the tide

If man has inexorably altered his environment, then it is up to him to reverse his intrusion. “Remember you gotta mulch before you put your stuff in there,” Charlottesville Parks and Recreation Volunteer Coordinator Susan Pleiss bellowed two hours before I had put in on the Rivanna, as a group of Walker Middle School students and one of their teachers planted trees at Jordan Park. They were part of an effort to restore a stream buffer next to a stretch of Moore’s Creek. Until just a few years ago, lawn maintenance had dictated the grass be mowed right up to the edge of the creek’s bank. Every rain, a steady flow of runoff caromed off the basketball court on the rise above the creek. “That was just a bed of silt,” Pleiss said, pointing to the ground where the students were digging. Similar restoration efforts over the last few years mean that 30 trees are already well on their way to sustaining the creek bank. “It slows the water down,” Pleiss explained, “and drops the sediment.”

A few feet away, Lorianne Barnett, the 4-H agent for Albemarle County, helped me plant a tree, a Black Locust. I put the small plant in a hole some of the students had dug, and we covered its roots with dirt and mulch and poured water on it. 

“I clean streams all summer long with camp kids,” Pleiss explained once we had finished. As volunteer coordinator, Pleiss manages numerous stream initiatives. “I had the UVA women’s rowing team help once. They were picking up engine blocks,” she said. We all laughed. “The people said they felt like no one had cleaned up that stream in 25 years.”

John Denver would be proud: Walker Middle School students are among many volunteers who plant trees with Charlottesville Parks and Recreation to help restore stream buffers. Here the kids work at Jordan Park along Moore’s Creek.

A mother and her young son walked up. They had just finished planting trees, as well, largely—the mother said—because her son likes to play in the creek where they live and she fears for his health when he does. “Where are you from?” Pleiss asked the boy. “Greenbrier,” he said. “Oh, so you go to school at Greenbrier,” she asked again. “No, Peabody,” he answered. Pleiss seemed ecstatic. “I took some kids from Peabody to plant trees over at Azalea Park.”

The next night, I drove past the basketball courts and community gardens at Azalea Park and stopped by the section of Moore’s Creek that runs along its south side. The stream swooped through the deep grooves and over some rocks. I grabbed onto the white cord that stretched across and as I made my way over I saw a group perched on the side of the creek. Crashing through the surrounding brush, I emerged with one shoe soaking wet. It was a Girl Scout troop, resting. “We were up there planting trees,” the troop leader said and pointed to the left. Heading out, I stopped at the spot, upstream of where we were talking. A mighty stream buffer girded the side of the water, lush foot-high grass rustling in the wind. Protected in plastic sleeves, maturing and infant trees sprinkled the side. Back behind them was a concrete basketball court. Now when it rains, the runoff that pours down towards the creek is trapped by the restored wetland, allowing the water to seep into the earth as it was intended.

Maintained by the Rivanna Conservation Society, the Azalea buffer is just one example of the many efforts being undertaken to roll back man’s effects. Another is the Scheier Natural Area, just over the Fluvanna County line. Almost 60 years ago, Howard and Neva Scheier moved from Ohio to a homestead near Antioch in Fluvanna, and as they neared the end of their lives, they wanted to share their love of the land with the surrounding community.

The Scheiers eventually settled on the Rivanna Conservation Society, naming them the trustees of the land. A memorial stone to commemorate the Scheiers’ gift was dedicated on July 29, 1997, officially consecrating the 100-acre parcel of land. Ten years later, on April 8, 2007, a park bench and memorial plaque was installed to honor another nature lover, James Erdle. According to his wife, “Jim loved to paddle the Rivanna River and spent many happy hours enjoying the beauty of this special waterway.”

Two weeks later, I hiked along one of the trails that wind through the wooded parcel, and ended by Erdle’s bench. Atop a mossy hill, the bench looks out onto a small bubbling creek, its gentle trickle soothingly reassuring. Down by the stream, called Cunningham’s Creek, I took in the idyllic setting, as birds chirped and bugs skimmed the surface of the water. I heard a crunching of leaves and saw a raccoon streaking my way. When it saw me, the raccoon pulled up and froze, pausing a moment before frantically fleeing.

“It’s really beautiful out there,” says Robbi Savage, RCS’s executive director. She is one of two full-time staff for the group that was started in 1990 to preserve the Rivanna Watershed. Many of the groups that work on the river—like RCS and StreamWatch—operate on substandard budgets and rely largely on a mix of private and public support. As a result, they depend heavily on volunteers, people like me and you. “They are absolutely essential,” says Savage. Like StreamWatch, RCS is only able to afford a staff of two, including her. “Until very recently we operated as a completely volunteer organization,” she says. John Murphy concurs. “We rely significantly on volunteers and we always have volunteers with us,” he says, estimating that about 10 to 15 of StreamWatch’s 33 total sites are completely staffed by volunteers.

Of course, taking time out to go clean a stream or plant a buffer is one way to help, but the effort to revitalize the river is something that extends to everyone in his or her daily existence. The next time there’s a storm, go down to the Rivanna and its streams. Check out the suspiciously brown water. There are all sorts of things in there. What do you think happens to the fertilizer on your lawn? It flows right off your yard into the gutter and then down the storm drain and through a pipe into the river. Or how about the ever-present dog turds that litter the landscape? A recent study of Moore’s Creek found that pet waste was perhaps responsible for as much as 20 percent of the impairment.

“It’s never too early to start implementing improvements to the watershed,” says Robert Brent from the state’s Department of Environmental Quality. The converse is equally true. If measures are not taken, we may lose the life spring of our community. The river is more than a source of water, though, there is something essential about it. Out on the Rivanna or just standing on its banks, one is imbued with a calm and a peace that soothes the soul, a feeling best described by author and conservationist Henry David Thoreau:  “He who hears the rippling rivers in these degenerate days will not utterly despair.”