PORTSMOUTH, Va. — It began with four folks, sitting around a kitchen table, discussing ways to clean-up their beloved river.
That was 1993.
On March 29, the Elizabeth River Project – the grassroots non-profit organization that morphed into a multi-million dollar public-private venture – broke ground on its largest public restoration site: Paradise Creek Nature Park in Portsmouth, Va.
Marjorie Mayfield Jackson, ERP executive director, told the crowd the future urban park will become a unique "oasis for recreation and education" for the city of Portsmouth and the Hampton Roads region.
Paradise Creek Nature Park is a 40-acre waterfront park on the southern branch of the Elizabeth River. When phase 1 work is completed in spring 2013, the park will boast two miles of nature trails and restored native plants that meander through one of the last stands of mature forest on the river. The former creek bottom, filled with dredged material in the mid-1990s, will be restored. The park will feature the region's largest restored wetland, plus unique outdoor sculptures, education stops, kayaking, public access roads and an earthworks mound designed as public art, where visitors can enjoy a view of the entire park.
The Norfolk District, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has long partnered with ERP to make their plans to restore the river a reality.
In 1998, at the urging of the ERP, Norfolk District gained Congressional approval to form a project delivery team to formulate and conduct an environmental restoration study to restore the health of the Elizabeth River. Led by Robert Pretlow, district civil engineer and project manager, The PDT included five cost-sharing sponsors: the Commonwealth of Virginia, and the four cities on the banks of the Elizabeth River: Portsmouth, Chesapeake, Norfolk and Virginia Beach.
The award-winning study produced an environmental restoration plan that included the use of environmental dredging to remove contaminated river sediment and construction of wetland areas for habitat restoration.
The Elizabeth River provides for Hampton Roads in economic terms. She sets a scene for attractions, such as the Harbor Park battlefield and Norfolk's National Maritime Center, Nauticus, where its war hero resides, the U.S.S. Wisconsin. Her channel waters bustle with military fleets and foreign cargo vessels of the expanding Port of Hampton Roads. She hosts thousands of recreational boaters that cruise the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway, and hundreds of thousands party on her shores during the annual Harborfest.
However, the Elizabeth River remains one of the more seriously degraded urban rivers in the United States. Originally a broad, shallow estuary of the Chesapeake Bay, the river has been dredged to twice her normal depth and filled to 75 percent her normal width to accommodate three centuries of development.
Toxins accumulate in the river's muddy floor. The lurking toxins cause health problems in fish, including tumors, cataracts and other abnormalities, and pose risks for human health. Aquatic life in the river is hard-pressed to find a habitat; as much as 50 percent of tidal wetlands have been lost on the Elizabeth River since World War II.
Some of the river's problems have abated with the environmental consciousness of the last several decades. Industrial discharges into the river are regulated and significantly cleaner. Municipal improvements include state-of-the-art sewage treatment plants. Large challenges, however, remain for the 300-square-mile watershed, and that's where the district's environmental restoration plan took center stage.
The Norfolk District recently completed two wetland restoration projects: the Scuffletown Creek Sediment Remediation project in Chesapeake and the Old Dominion Drainage Canal project in Norfolk. The district is also working to complete the design leading to the construction of a wetland restoration project at Woodstock Park in Virginia Beach.
Currently, Norfolk District supports the ERP through the Craney Island Eastward Expansion project, said Michael Anderson, project manager.
"As a 50 percent cost-share partner with the Virginia Port Authority to construct the Craney Island Eastward Expansion project, we are also constructing 11 acres of wetlands at the Paradise Creek Nature Park," Anderson said.
The creation of wetlands at Paradise Creek Nature Park is set for completion in October. The park's second phase of work is scheduled for completion in 2015, and will include a children's playground and picnic shelters.