The Norfolk District, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation are partners on a feasibility study of the Belle Isle State Park.
The federal project is authorized under Section 206 of the Water Resources Development Act of 1996, for restoration of aquatic ecosystems (Continuing Authorities Program). Under WRDA, this feasibility study will determine federal interest in improving aquatic habitat at Belle Isle State Park.
The Belle Isle State Park Ecosystem Restoration Feasibility Study Project is located in Lancaster County, Va., approximately 120 miles southeast of Washington, D.C., and 71 miles northwest of Norfolk, Va.
The 733-acre state park is a window to the beautiful lower Rappahannock River in Lancaster County. With seven miles of waterfront on the north shore of the Rappahannock, the park features diverse tidal and nontidal wetlands, lowland marshes, tidal coves and upland forests. The diverse habitats provide homes to many predator birds, such as blue herons, osprey, hawks and bald eagles. White-tailed deer, turkeys, groundhogs, rabbits, squirrels, moles, reptiles and amphibians are common. The park offers community recreation, such as picnic sites, a hiking trail, boat launch and a gift shop.
The shoreline consists primarily of "low shore" (approximately 93 percent), with a smaller area (approximately 7 percent) identified as "moderately low shore." There are two sections experiencing intense erosion. The first is located adjacent to the visitor center and the second section is accessible to the playground/picnic area. The banks in these areas are severely undercut; some are collapsing, with vegetation and sediment sliding onto the beach or directly into the water. The beach quality is poor because the beachfront is extremely narrow, and the sand at the site contains a large amount of garnet and other non-quartz minerals. The upland immediately adjacent to the shore consists of wooded bluff, agricultural fields and open, manicured lawn.
A Preliminary Restoration Plan study, completed in 2004 by Norfolk District, determined that upland, beach and intertidal habitat degradation and loss of shoreline were primarily due to erosion resulting from high wave energy and rain runoff.
According to a 1977 Virginia Institute of Marine Science report, an average of 2.5 feet of shoreline is lost at Belle Isle Bluff per year due to the intensity of storm- generated wave action. This wave action has caused the loss of considerable acreage of beach and estuarine marsh at the site.
Additionally, the water quality of the Rappahannock River is negatively impacted by the ongoing beach erosion at Belle Isle State Park. Eroded sediments are introduced into the ecosystem resulting in increased turbidity and suspended solids. These changes in water quality have also caused degradation of aquatic habitat. The VIMS report concluded that significant amounts of fish and wildlife habitat have been lost or degraded by high wave energy and resultant changes in water quality related to shoreline loss and erosion. A specific example of habitat impairment, said the report, can be observed in submerged aquatic vegetation. Currently, no SAV exist at the project site, although SAV does exist in more sheltered, less-eroded sections of beach, located upstream of the project.
The Belle Isle State Park Ecosystem Restoration Feasibility Study will evaluate measures aimed at eliminating erosion and improving habitat quality at the project site. A possible alternative, which was identified during the 2004 USACE study, included the placement of a series of segmented offshore breakwaters along the intertidal shoreline, designed to attenuate wave energy and beach re-nourishment, using high quality sand. Other restoration methods, such as the construction of groins or other submerged structures, slope stabilization and re-vegetation, will be investigated during the feasibility study.
Belle Isle State Park is listed on the National Register of Historic Places as the location of the Belle Isle plantation, operated on the site throughout the 19th century. Other archaeological sites are located near the project site. The Corps feasibility study will carefully assess potential impacts on these cultural sites and work closely with the Virginia Department of Historic Resources to resolve any issues.