Climate-Informed Watershed Restoration on the Elizabeth River

Whitney Reynier
Posted on: 12/21/2017 - Updated on: 11/04/2021

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Project Summary

The Elizabeth River Project is practicing climate-informed restoration of the Elizabeth River and adjacent watersheds in Virginia. By taking sea level rise into consideration in its collaboratively developed Watershed Action Plan and restoration projects, as well as engaging significant stakeholders through community outreach and education, the project is improving the environmental health of the Elizabeth River.


The Elizabeth River in southeast Virginia, a tributary of Chesapeake Bay, has a long legacy of military and industrial use. Sediment contamination, water pollution, historic tidal wetland loss, and altered channel morphology are all significant problems undermining the health of this watershed and adjacent ecosystems in the Chesapeake Bay, reducing the value of these aquatic resources for local communities. In addition, sea level rise threatens existing habitats and human communities.

Founded in 1993 to address pollution issues in the Elizabeth River, The Elizabeth River Project (ERP) is a nonprofit organization using targeted restoration, public outreach, and education to improve the health of the Elizabeth River. To address future challenges, the ERP works to include sea level rise projections in its work and outreach to ensure that projects and partner initiatives are resilient to future increases in sea level. A majority of ERP work is funded by federal and state grants, as well as by private donations and targeted funding campaigns.


One of the first achievements of the Elizabeth River Project was the development of a Watershed Action Plan for the Elizabeth River corridor. This plan guides restoration goals and projects along the waterway, and was developed collaboratively with over 100 river stakeholders, including industry, community members, reservoir managers, and state and local governments. The first Watershed Action Plan was published in 1996, and has been revised four times to reflect changing watershed conditions and priorities, with the most recent version being published in 2015. The 2015 plan acknowledges the region’s vulnerability to sea level rise, and makes several recommendations to enhance the resilience of the Plan’s goals and activities. For example, it recommends protecting upland space for wetland migration and working with local governments to restrict development in low-lying areas.

The ERP uses a variety of data to inform restoration projects and future Water Action Plan updates. Regional data is sourced from the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality, the Virginia Institute of Marine Sciences, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and field observations (e.g., sediment samples, elevation measurements, biological benchmark surveys, bathymetry surveys, sediment SONAR surveys). The ERP also uses monitoring data from existing restoration projects, historical local knowledge, and old fire and sand bar maps; these latter resources are used to enhance understanding of historic pollutant exposure and river management.

The Elizabeth River Project has led a variety of collaborative implementation projects to achieve restoration goals outlined in the Watershed Action Plan. The ERP attempts to design restoration projects to be resilient to climate impacts; for example, where possible, wetland restoration projects are designed to accommodate upland retreat in response to rising sea levels, and feature salt-tolerant vegetation to ensure that the marsh can survive periodic inundation from increasing storm surge. Restored marshes not only improve water quality and provide habitat, but also protect adjacent communities.

In addition to restoration work, the Elizabeth River Project also engages in a variety of education and community outreach programs. The ERP acts as a formal pollution prevention advisor for regional industries, government, and citizens. It also established the River Star Homes and Businesses Program, which encourages industries and homeowners to improve on-site river and riparian habitat and reduce on-site nutrient loads coming from their land. The ERP also runs the River Star Schools Project, bringing STEM and river education to local youth.

In all of its work, the ERP engages with a variety of partners to achieve goals and activities identified in the Watershed Action Plan. Critical partners include the NOAA Restoration Center, EPA Region 3, the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, local cities and municipalities, the Virginia Department of Forestry, and the Virginia Port Authority.

Outcomes and Conclusions

Since 1997, The Elizabeth River Project and partners have completed many activities outlined in the Watershed Action Plan. They’ve completed over 100 collaborative wetland restoration and natural storm buffer projects in the watershed, as well a significant sediment cleanup project, which replaced 16,000 cubic yards of contaminated river sediments with suitable habitat. This project, in particular, has greatly enhanced community resilience to climate change impacts. In 2009, a newly constructed seven-acre wetland at the sediment remediation site not only survived a storm with record-breaking storm surge, but prevented flooding onto adjacent industrial property.

In 2018, the ERP’s Lafayette River Restoration project completed the restoration of 12 oyster reefs. The ERP, alongside partners, declared the Lafayette River as the first river in the state to have fully restored the native oyster. All restoration projects are monitored by ERP staff or partners to better understand overall watershed health trends and responses to restoration activities. Monitoring metrics are largely related to water quality and biotic activity, diversity, and health, as well as comparing how project design compares to actual project implementation. Monitoring data and other regional water quality information are used to improve restoration design and to inform Watershed Action Plan updates. The Elizabeth River Water Action Plan is updated to reflect changing conditions and priorities within the watershed; over 100 stakeholders completed the most recent plan update. Monitoring data is also used to develop State of the River reports, which provide snapshots of river health trends and significant restoration, education, and outreach projects being conducted by the ERP. The most recent State of the Elizabeth River report was published in 2020. More intense rainstorms and sea level rise have increased polluted stormwater runoff into the riverine ecosystem.

The ERP is also using restoration success to enhance its educational programs. For example, the ERP helped restore the 40-acre Paradise Creek wetland and install an educational pavilion, which is now used for local school fieldtrips. With help from Virginia Dominion Power, the ERP also retrofitted an off-the-grid steel barge located on the Elizabeth River. Similar to the wetland, this nontraditional classroom is used to enhance STEM education, to emphasize how successful restoration benefits human communities and habitats, and to demonstrate how partnerships between industry, the community, and environmental groups can accomplish mutually beneficial goals.

The ERP has been very successful in working with nontraditional partners, such as Virginia Dominion Power. In partnership with the ERP, this riverside coal power company has funded many outreach and education projects to reach a diverse group of local students. The utility also actively participates in the River Star Homes and Businesses Program and leads several other sustainability efforts. The ERP credits its success in working with such diverse stakeholders to focusing on on-the-ground solutions to local problems, and by leveraging what opportunities exist.

In June 2020, ERP launched the $9 million Next Wave campaign to expand the ERP’s mission to enhance flood resilience measures and provide additional educational and research opportunities. One goal is to establish the Resilience Lab to act as a living laboratory to serve as a public demonstration site for mitigation and adaptation. Moving into the future, the ERP plans to continue to implement goals and activities outlined in the Watershed Action Plan.


Reynier, W. and R.M. Gregg (2021). Climate-Informed Watershed Restoration on the Elizabeth River [Case study on a project by the Elizabeth River Project]. Version 2.0. Product of EcoAdapt’s State of Adaptation Program. Retrieved from CAKE: (Last updated October 2021)

Project Links

Project Contact

Joe Rieger
Deputy Director of Restoration
[email protected]

David Koubsky
Environmental Projects Manager
[email protected]

Affiliated Organizations

We are citizens, businesses, schools and government working together to restore our home river. For too long, the Elizabeth River, a tributary of the Chesapeake Bay, has been infamous for pollution. Instead of lamenting the problem, we prefer to take hope from her strengths. From the Great Bridge Lock to the naval base, you can see the importance of the Elizabeth River every day in Hampton Roads. She gives us our work and our play.

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