The Elizabeth River Project (ERP) wraps up construction on the largest sanctuary oyster reef on Norfolk’s Lafayette River the week of July 1. Passersby may have noticed construction barges between the Willowwood and Granby Street bridges; look closer and you will see the top of the reef, most especially visible at low tide. The Elizabeth River Project’s contractor, Coastal Design and Construction out of Gloucester, Virginia, has spent the past couple of weeks placing a six-inch layer of rock as underpinning for a one-foot layer of shell. Altogether, this shell and rock base will create a 20,000-square-foot habitat—that’s just under a half-acre—for oysters. Partner Chesapeake Bay Foundation (CBF) will add one million young oysters, many grown by citizens, including the ERP’s River Star Homes. The CBF will also install oyster reef balls on the site.
As a bit of history to go with this story, the Lafayette River, earlier known as Tanner's Creek, is a 6.2-mile-long tidal estuary which empties into the Elizabeth River just south of Sewell’s Point near its mouth at Hampton Roads, which in turn empties into the southern end of Chesapeake Bay in southeast Virginia. The Lafayette, formerly Tanner’s Creek (and still Tanner’s Creek to native Norfolkians) is entirely located in the city of Norfolk. The Lafayette’s newest sanctuary oyster reef isn’t its first. There are two other sanctuary reefs, one adjacent to the Hampton Boulevard Bridge and the other adjacent to Norfolk International Terminals where the Lafayette empties into the mainstem of the Elizabeth River.
So why this new location? There are four overriding reasons, according to the ERP’s Joe Rieger, for locating the reef between the Willowwood and Granby Street bridges. The first is the requirement that an oyster reef be placed on competent (hard) bottom; much of the river is soft bottom and this location can support the weight of a person standing on it and, certainly, the dispersed weight of an almost half-acre reef. Second, studies by the Chesapeake Bay Foundation have concluded that this is the ideal spot for an “oyster factory”—a prime location for oyster reproduction to flourish. The Lafayette’s newest reef is central to the north and south portions of the river; oysters will be readily able to go downriver to find homes from this site. Third, there is a natural shoreline of trees and wetlands between the bridges, an excellent buffer for the reef. Fourth, and perhaps the most important reason for the location of the reef here is that people can see it and touch it. “Most people don’t realize we have oyster reefs in the Lafayette,” said Rieger. The other two reefs are not easily visible to the public except by boat. “The Lafayette,” he continued, “is one of the better places in the entire Chesapeake Bay for oyster recruitment.”
Completion of the reef is an important part of the ERP’s goal to make the Lafayette swimmable and fishable by 2014, and safe for open oyster harvest by 2020. Currently, most of the Lafayette River is unsafe for swimming and harvesting oysters because of high levels of bacteria. Meanwhile, excess levels of nutrients encourage algal blooms that stress aquatic life. Because it is located within one of the most urban areas in the Chesapeake Bay region, the Lafayette River is plagued with problems stemming from an overabundance of paved surfaces. Nitrogen, phosphorus, and bacteria from a variety of sources—including stormwater runoff, which carries lawn fertilizer, pet waste, motor oil, and a slew of other toxins from yards and streets—funnel into storm drains and creeks which feed into the river. The biggest building boom in Norfolk took place from the 1900s to the 1950s, before the importance of water quality was understood. Many wetlands, which provide valuable filtration, are gone or threatened, and much of the city’s stormwater system leads polluted water unfiltered right into our waterways, most especially after big rain storms, nor’easters and hurricanes. After these “big” storms, for example, there is often a spike in bacteria that leads to “no swimming” warnings for the Lafayette in the immediate days that follow.
Questions? E-mail Joe Rieger, the ERP’s deputy director for restoration and oyster reef project manager, or call (757) 399-7487. If you want to know how you can get involved, visit the Elizabeth River Project on the Web at http://www.elizabethriver.org/ Here, you can take a look at the plan for the Lafayette River and see what else the ERP is doing to clean up the Elizabeth River and its tributaries. You can also visit the Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s page on the Lafayette River restoration, where you will find valuable information about volunteer opportunities, pollution remediation, oyster restoration, events and programs.