Healing the Elizabeth River


Healing The Elizabeth River

A collaborative approach and plenty of dedication helps build a swimmable and fishable future.

Marjorie Mayfield-Jackson, executive director of the Elizabeth River Foundation (ERP),
has been working to clean up the Elizabeth River for nearly 20 years.

Bookmark and Share By Beth Hester


In the early 90s, I made it my habit to attend the yearly Crawford Bay, Elizabeth River Crew Classic rowing competitions. Held initially on the Elizabeth’s working waterfront in early spring, the sight of sleek rowing shells gliding along the water was mesmerizing. But even as I watched the exertions of collegiate crews racing down the river, I couldn’t help but think: “Holy crap, I hope nobody falls in.”

Musing on the sad state of that polluted river, and the potential health hazards presented by an extended dunk in its waters, was sobering indeed. Dancing in my head were visions of Katharine Hepburn, who sustained a nasty eye infection after falling into a contaminated Venetian canal during the 1955 filming of Summertime.

But rivers are lyrical, and we just can’t help ourselves. We write poems about them, sing songs to them, and lie about the size of the fish we catch along their banks. Those of us who are lucky enough to have grown up around the Elizabeth River treasure memories of foggy mornings, blue crabs, picnic lunches, canoe trips, and marshside exploration. Even the most cynical among us would have to admit that there is something particularly life-enhancing, even spiritual about flowing waters and the measure of time and tide.

The Elizabeth isn’t a river in the traditional sense of the word; it’s an inter-tidal estuary and as such, doesn’t have a ‘current’ per se. The waters ebb and flow along with the tidal ranges, which, in turn, influence the river’s freshwater in-flow and salinity. Estuarine environments are some of the richest on earth, providing an ideal habitat for vast species of plant and wildlife.

Before the Clean Water Act, dredging and filling to accommodate a thriving industrial base, shipyard, and military facilities caused a 50 percent loss of wetland areas. Decades of storm water runoff, erosion, sewage, PCBs from transformers, PAHs from lumber treatment plants, and other industrial poisons resulted in deformed, cancerous, and contaminated fish and shellfish. Thankfully, not all of the river is an aquatic ghost town—there are still some productive areas, but some hotspots along the Elizabeth’s southern corridor are virtual dead zones.

It’s hard to imagine now, but early records reveal that Captain John Smith noted oysters the size of dinner plates and fish so abundant that his crew could catch dinner by reaching over the sides of their boats to whack them on the head with a frying pan.
More current news reports and scientific studies documenting the Elizabeth’s dead zones have been ubiquitous and pretty scary. Phrases like “One of America’s most polluted rivers,” “The foul and notorious Elizabeth River,” and “toxic tributary” are not what natives like to hear in conjunction with descriptions of their home waters. Back in 1991, it wasn’t what Marjorie Mayfield-Jackson wanted to hear either, so she set out to do something about it.

For the rest of this article see the April 2010 issue of Hampton Roads Magazine

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