Live Staking – An Innovative Way to Improve Water Quality

In March, staff had the opportunity to volunteer with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation installing live stakes along a section of Kerrs Creek in Rockbridge County. Live staking, as it’s referred to, is a cost-effective conservation technique used to stabilize streambanks and reduce erosion during rain events. The process involves cutting limbs from a live tree or shrub, and then replanting the limbs, or stakes, in areas with little vegetation.

So, wait. Does planting these things really work? They don’t even have roots!

Well plants are pretty incredible organisms! These stakes have the ability to sprout roots to establish a new tree. This article from Penn State Extension does a great job of explaining how the whole process works.

Live stakes are dipped in water to help prevent stakes from drying out.

It was a really great event to be involved in. Staff worked with students from Washington and Lee who were looking to give back to the community and take knowledge gained in the classroom and apply it to real-life projects. It was great to get to know some of them and talk about their experiences as students looking to get into the environmental field after graduation. In total, the group planted over 300 (!) live stakes in just under four hours.

The planting is a small part of a larger effort being done to improve riparian forest cover in the Chesapeake Bay Watershed. Riparian areas serve as the interface between a waterway and the adjacent land. These areas play a critical role of ensuring that aquatic and terrestrial systems are connected.

A healthy, undisturbed riparian zone will be forested and at least 50 feet wide. These zones are able to ‘buffer’ impacts of land use on a stream system by capturing nutrients and stormwater that may runoff during a rain event. Riparian zones can also stabilize streambanks, help control stream temperatures, and provide food for aquatic organisms. They provide habitat for birds and waterfowl and can serve as wildlife corridors that allow for animals to safely move from place to place and limit habitat fragmentation.

Stabilize streambanks: Tree and plant roots are great at holding soil in place. This is especially important along streambanks that allow water to rip into loose sediment and unprotected soils. By having root structure in place, soil is prevented from washing downstream after rain events.

Stakes were planted along this cut bank to help with stabilization. Tree plantings in the background will help establish a wide buffer.

Control stream temperature: Tree canopy provides shade over a stream to help cool it during hot, summer days. This is especially important if the stream is home to cold water species, like Eastern Brook Trout, that are sensitive to warmer temperatures. Cooler water holds more dissolved oxygen, which is vital for maintaining a diverse community of organisms.

Food for aquatic organisms: Not only will fish be treated to spiders and other bugs that happen to fall off a tree limb, but the tree parts themselves will serve has food for aquatic macroinvertebrate species, or aquatic insects. Some of these species are referred to as ‘shredders’, meaning they consume coarse particulate organic matter like leaves. Shredders also help provide food for insects who are called ‘collector-filterers’. These species collect the bits and pieces of organic matter, like the shredded leaf material that got away, that are caught up in streamflow. These insects are the main food source for many fish species.

Habitat and wildlife corridors: Many bird and waterfowl species find sanctuary in forested areas next to waterbodies, and it’s not just your common sparrow. Bald Eagles prefer to live along waterways so they can have easy access to their favorite meal – fish. Riparian zones allow eagles to build nest in trees located in close proximity to waterbodies. Wildlife also use waterways to navigate between landscapes. The natural ‘roadway’ allows for animals to travel from different areas to access food, escape predators, or reach breeding grounds. Even some aquatic insect species, specifically case-making caddisflies, will use twigs and leaves from riparian trees to make cases for protection and molting.

There are many benefits to having these areas forested and undisturbed. Much of them have been cleared for agricultural purposes or development, but there is an ongoing effort to restore riparian zones and their functions.

This particular planting was funded by one of the many buffer restoration programs available for landowners and communities. The James River Buffer Program offers the chance for landowners to install trees in riparian areas for no cost. The program is spearheaded by three organizations: the James River Association, Chesapeake Bay Foundation, and Virginia Department of Forestry. Landowners in the Middle and Upper James Watershed are eligible for the program. This area is generally defined as the section of the watershed west of the Fall Line in Richmond extending to the headwaters in Highland County. Projects on public lands are also eligible. You can find out more by visiting the website here. Be sure to connect with the program coordinator if you are interested in volunteering!

Volunteers worked in pairs to successfully plant stakes.

Flooding – It Impacts All of Us

Flooding is an issue that seems to have a regular segment on local, state, and national news stations. From King Tides in Norfolk to riverine flooding in Buchanan County, Virginia is not unsusceptible to these events, and the impacts are felt by all parts of the community.

I recently came across a video that shows the sheer ferocity and spontaneity of flooding events. In Queensland, Australia, heavy rainfall devastated multiple cities and towns with water that turned shallow streams into ripping rivers. The most amazing, and terrifying, part of this whole event is the quickness in which streams swelled well beyond their banks and spilled high into the floodplain.

Time-lapse of flooding in Australia

So how does this happen?

Flooding occurs when a large amount of rain falls over a landscape and discharges lots of water in a short period of time. Natural stream systems are designed to mitigate the impacts of heavy rainfall events in a number of ways. Wetlands act as sponges that soak up stormwater and slowly release it into a stream. The sinuosity (how much a stream meanders) of a stream slows the water down and provides more channel to handle larger flows, and floodplains – areas adjacent to streams – allows for stormwater to spill over stream banks to decrease the amount of water that is flowing downstream. All of these mechanisms are important ways a stream system limits the impacts of flooding.

So, if these stream components are effective at mitigating flood events, then why does flooding seem more common and severe?

Part of the problem is attributable to climate change. Climate change will cause changes to local and regional weather patterns that will impact the frequency of high rainfall events. How much a region’s precipitation pattern will change is continuously being studied, and models help show what can be expected for a region. Models show that the Roanoke Valley region can expect to see more rainfall and more severe weather events, which means more flooding.

Climate change is not the only factor. How we manage our landscapes and watersheds – areas that drain to a certain waterbody – has huge implications on flooding size and frequency. In a forested, undisturbed watershed, the landscape is better adapted to handle a heavy rain event. Stormwater is able to infiltrate the ground easily, leading to less runoff that sends rainwater directly to the stream. In the event that flooding occurs, floodwaters are able to spill over into the floodplain to spread out and slow down.

In watersheds with lots of impervious cover, rainwater does not have the chance to infiltrate the soil. Instead, stormwater rushes off hard surfaces and into the stormwater system. This increases the volume of water being discharged into a stream during a rain event. The impact of land use change can easily be seen on a stormwater runoff hydrograph.

1. Image from the Alabama Cooperative Extension website.

The graph is simple: more hard surfaces mean more stormwater runoff, which correlates to higher stream flows during rain events. The result of this change in hydrology is what leads to “flash floods”.

2. Flooding in downtown Roanoke, August 2021.

So, this seems like a big problem, right? How could we possibly fix this?

It is nearly impossible to return to a predevelopment stage. We live in a complex society that requires us to have roadways, commercial and residential buildings, and facilities that are essential for providing community services. There are ways, however, we can manage runoff from developed areas and decrease the discharge of stormwater runoff.

Green infrastructure is a popular way to manage stormwater runoff for multiple reasons. Green infrastructure takes advantage of natural processes to capture, store, and release stormwater runoff. They are effective at reducing the amount of runoff that contributes to the rush of discharge responsible for flash flooding. By collecting water with green infrastructure, we allow for the water to slow down, infiltrate the soil, and slowly release into streams like it would in an undisturbed area. They also capture pollutants, like trash and gas, from impervious surfaces before they have a chance to degrade water quality. This is important for maintaining healthy water quality levels in waterways where people enjoy activities like swimming, floating, and fishing. Green infrastructure helps create a buffer between developed and natural landscapes that are essential for limiting our impact on local ecosystems.

3. Biopond collects stormwater runoff from a parking lot in Roanoke.

We can also encourage our local governments to adopt policies and ordinances that support land conservation. It is important that we take advantage of already developed lands and repurpose them to support the demands of our communities instead of developing natural spaces.

Virginia is working hard to improve flood resiliency. In 2020, Virginia joined the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, or RGGI. RGGI is a cap and invest initiative that serves as a way for Mid-Atlantic states to reduce carbon dioxide emissions from the power sector. Through the effort, states are able to generate funds to support environmental programs.

Proceeds from RGGI auctions help support programs like the Community Flood Preparedness Fund (CFPF). CFPF is designed to support regional and local efforts to reduce the impacts of flooding. Auctions are held quarterly, and the first auction of 2022 generated $72.4 million (!) for Virginia. The most recent round of grant awards was announced in December 2021. The list of funded projects can be found here; see if you can find a project in your community.

The next time it rains, follow the stormwater running off your driveway and funneling down the storm drain. Think about how it impacts the waterway closest to your community and what you can do to help. It could be as simple as installing a rain barrel on a downspout or planting a tree. The efforts we make as individuals and together as a community can improve the health and livability of our region.

Get To Know The Upper James River Watershed: Upper James River Edition

The convergence of the Jackson and Cowpasture Rivers signifies the beginning of Virginia’s iconic James River. This river will go through extensive physical and scenic changes before it meets with the Chesapeake Bay almost 350 miles from its start in Virginia’s Blue Ridge mountains. Because of its length and changing character, the James River watershed is broken down into three different subsections: the Upper, Middle, and Lower James River. The Upper James River section is typically characterized as the river area above the confluence of the James and the Maury River at the town of Glasgow. The Maury River runs through the cities of Lexington and Buena Vista and drains a significant portion of the Upper James area. Other notable streams that are a part of the Upper James area include Catawba Creek and Craig Creek.

Image 1. Upper James River Watershed highlighted in yellow.

A unique feature of the Upper James area is that it along the Eastern Continental Divide. The Upper James borders the New River watershed that will end up entering the Gulf of Mexico through the Mississippi River system. It is fascinating to think water from a rainstorm at this border will end up in coastal areas that are thousands of miles apart.

The mainstem of the James River from the confluence of the Jackson and Cowpasture Rivers to the Rockbridge-Amherst-Bedford County line is a part of Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation’s Scenic Rivers Program. To earn the designation of a Virginia Scenic River, a river must meet strict requirements. The designation is not easy to obtain and receiving the label indicates a river possesses outstanding scenic, recreational, historic, and natural characteristics.

 

Water Quality

The water quality of the James River is influenced by the land use along its banks and the banks of its tributaries. The water quality of the area is generally good, and the mainstem is lined with a riparian buffer that extends along a majority of the reach’s shoreline. This riparian area protects the river from receiving an excess amount of runoff from adjacent lands. The buffer assimilates pollutants from runoff, helps reduce erosion by stabilizing riverbanks, and provides habitat for organisms living in and around the river. The watershed area is mostly forested and rural, but it does contain cityscapes and agricultural lands that influence some of its tributary’s water quality. Non-point sources (NPS) are the main culprits causing stream impairments in the Upper James. Land uses are classified as NPS due to the difficulty of tracing a pollutant back to a specific source. Some examples include agricultural fields, urban areas, and residential septic systems.

Image 3. Scattered throughout the Upper James River are small rapids that will test your paddling skills.

Agricultural fields that allow for livestock to graze directly in streams increase nutrient loads in the water, reduce bank stability, and increase soil compaction around streambanks. Runoff from adjacent fields also impacts water quality. Riparian buffers and fencing along streams can help reduce water quality impacts associated with agriculture. Nutriment management plans can also be an effective way for crop farmers to reduce their environmental impact and save money by having a strategic plan for efficient fertilizer use and land management practices.

Urban areas contribute to stream impairments because they produce a large amount of impervious runoff. Runoff from streets, sidewalks, and parking lots enters the storm system and is released into local streams. The untreated water picks up oil, trash, and other pollutants on paved areas that is carried into the waterway. Increasing infiltration and detaining rainwater during storm events is an effective way of reducing urban runoff. Permeable pavements and vegetated roofs are examples of best management practices that can reduce urban-based pollutants from entering a stream.

Residential septic systems can also be a source of pollution. Unmaintained systems may not operate as designed and can cause excess nutrients from household wastewater to enter a local stream. It is important to regularly pump your septic system (at least once every five years) and limit items that cause clogging from entering the system. This will help limit your system’s environmental impact and reduce the risk of a system failing and causing damage to your house or yard.

Understanding the sources of pollution and the practices that help reduce nutrient impacts on water quality can help us prevent pollution to our waterways. The Upper James does not currently have a widespread problem with stream impairment, and we want to keep it that way. In fact, the 2019 Chesapeake Bay and Watershed Report Card awarded the Upper James with the highest score out of 23 watersheds assessed throughout the Chesapeake Bay watershed. The score is a compliment to the region’s environmental stewardship efforts and local appreciation for keeping waterways pristine.

 

Recreational Opportunities

The entirety of the Upper James River mainstem is a certified blueway known has the Upper James River Water Trail. The trail spans 64 miles through some of the most scenic and undisturbed portions of the entire James River. The Maury River also contains 10 miles of blueway beginning in Lexington. The James River trail is broken down into ten different sections. Detailed maps are available that outline features, including rapids, hazards, and campsites, and can be used to plan your ideal trip.

Smallmouth bass is the most popular fish species targeted by anglers along the blueway. The ideal conditions and habitat of the Upper James help sustain a healthy population of smallmouth bass. When fishing for smallmouth, it is important to locate key water features that indicate ideal habitat. Some features you want to look for are downed trees and submerged ridges. The Upper James also hosts largemouth bass, channel and flathead catfish, and a variety of different sunfish.

There are multiple campsites located along the blueway. Gala, Horseshoe Bend, and Arcadia campsites are located along the Upper James in Botetourt County. These campgrounds are offered through Twin River Outfitters and are conveniently located along different sections of the blueway. Further downstream are Yogi Bear’s Jellystone Camp and Resort and Wilderness Canoe Company camping sites. Camping on the Maury River is available at Glen Maury Park in Buena Vista. Each of these campsites is highlighted on the Upper James River Water Trail maps, making it easy to choose which site will best meet your needs.

There are multiple outfitters that run different trips along the Upper James River blueway. Fishing guides run trips and will help put you on a trophy smallmouth bass. Adventure trips range from day excursions to paddling the entire length of the blueway over multiple days. Linking up with an outfitter is the best way for unfamiliar floaters to get a guided trip along the blueway and learn from folks who are out on the water most every day.

The Upper James River watershed has an endless amount of open water to explore. Visitors come from all over the state and the country to experience the unique adventures on a famous and historic river. Efforts to keep the Upper James reach pristine and untouched will help preserve its beauty, and our downstream neighbors will also appreciate the hard work.

Image 3. A group of paddlers make their way around a riverbend, waiting to see what’s in store.

Get To Know The Upper James River Watershed: Douthat Lake Edition

At the center of intertwining trails running all throughout Douthat State Park lies Douthat Lake. This 50-acre body of water is located on the border of Alleghany and Bath County. Douthat Lake is fed by Wilson Creek, a part of the Jackson River watershed.  The creek flows into the Jackson River at Clifton Forge and is the last tributary to contribute to the Jackson’s flow before it merges with the Cowpasture River. The manmade Douthat Lake was constructed in the mid-20th Century, and the state park surrounding it has been around for nearly 90 years. The park is one of the original six state parks planned in Virginia during the 1930s. It is recognized as a Nationally Registered Historic District and has received a number of awards commemorating its success. Whether you want to completely immerse yourself in nature or enjoy the lake’s beauty while being able to grab a snack at the concessions stand, Douthat State Park has what you are looking for.

Douthat State Park has been acknowledged as one of the top parks in the nation. Clean public areas, campsites, and trails help create a memorable experience for visitors. Water and environmental quality also play a key role in ensuring that the park’s recreational opportunities are placed in an elite category.

Image 1. Still water on Douthat Lake reflects the colors of the sunset.

 

Water Quality

Douthat Lake supports a wide variety of designated water uses, including fishing and swimming. The Virginia Department of Environmental Quality’s 2018 Water Quality Monitoring Assessment indicated that Douthat Lake has the capacity to fully support aquatic life, recreational use, and wildlife. The high-quality status of the lake is attributed to the lake’s management policies and the limited development along its shoreline. The lake’s boat ramp, fishing piers, and swimming beach are located on the side of the lake closest to Douthat State Park Road. Confining these amenities to one side of the lake helps limit shoreline disturbance and preserve natural views of the lake. It is important that visitors of lakeside facilities help keep the lake unpolluted by picking up and disposing trash in the proper containers, keeping fishing gear and line from being lost in the water, and picking up after your pet. Boats that are gasoline powered are prohibited from being used on the lake. This helps keep oil and gasoline from leaking into the water. It also cuts down on shoreline erosion caused by high-powered boat wakes.

The lake’s water quality plays an integral role in maintaining a high number of visitors, especially during the summertime. The lakeside beach is a popular amenity. Increased temperatures during the summer can put stress on less healthy waterbodies, causing algal blooms and other undesirable conditions for swimmers. Fortunately, Douthat Lake is able to sustain a swimmable environment when it is coveted most. When you are out enjoying the lake yourself, remember to keep in mind the important practices that will help keep the water in tip-top shape.

 

Recreational Opportunities

Douthat State Park offers endless activities that cater to all users, from casual weekend goers to high-intensity trail riders and hikers. Over 43 miles of trails weave through the state park surrounding Douthat Lake. The trails come in a variety of lengths, uses, and difficulty levels. Whether you are looking for a flat trail to take an easy stroll or a path to test your mountain biking and horseback riding skills, there is something for you. Waterfalls and scenic overlooks provide points of interests to plan your hike around. Check out the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation’s Trail Guide to find the perfect fit for your adventure.

Camping and lodging around Douthat Lake is widely available. There are over 110 different sites to choose from that accommodate anywhere from 2 to 16 guests. Cabins and lodges are available for those who are looking to have a mixture of outdoor adventure and a cozy living space. Campsites provide RV and tent sites so you can fully immerse yourself in a weekend outdoors. Sites for all different housing styles are available in various areas around the state park, so you can choose if you prefer to have Douthat Lake close by or if you want to escape into a more secluded area. More information about these sites can be found on the Douthat State Park camping webpage. A facilities guide shows where the different campgrounds are located throughout the park.

Image 2. Campers enjoy an evening fire overlooking Douthat Lake.

Douthat Lake and Wilson Creek offer anglers an excellent opportunity to fish waters stocked with various trout species by the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries (DGIF). The area is stocked with brook, brown, and rainbow trout at various times of the year. DGIF’s Douthat Lake informational page provides the stocking schedule and regulations that apply for anglers. The lake is home to many species, including largemouth bass and black crappie. Two fishing piers are located on opposite ends of the lake so shoreline anglers can cast their lines over a large area. Wilson Creek is stocked with trout above and below the lake, so there is plenty of water to explore and find where the fish are hiding.

With Douthat State Park’s close proximity to Interstate 64, an outdoor weekend getaway has never been closer. The park’s versatility gives you the option to spend your time lounging on the beach or exploring the endless miles of trails that surround the lake.

Get To Know The Upper James River Watershed: Jackson River Edition

Two mountain rivers converge in northern Botetourt County to form Virginia’s most well-known and historic waterway, the James River. The Jackson and Cowpasture Rivers begin in Highland County and flow south through Bath and Alleghany County before converging below the Town of Iron Gate.

The Jackson River watershed extends from the town of Monterey down through portions of Craig County and even crosses the state boundary into West Virginia. Dunlap and Potts Creek drain the southern portion of the Jackson watershed. Both of these tributaries meet with the Jackson mainstem at the City of Covington. With such an extensive amount of headwater streams, the watershed is filled with hidden gems that may only be known by a handful of people.

Image 1. The Jackson River Watershed highlighted in yellow.

Before its convergence with the Cowpasture River, the Jackson River drains over 900 square miles of land that has a wide variety of uses, including cityscapes, agricultural fields, and National Forest area. The City of Covington, located in the Alleghany Highlands, is the watershed’s largest urban area and contains many river access points where boaters can start their journey exploring the lower portion of the Jackson River. Interstate 64 runs parallel with the lower stretch of the Jackson River, making public access points easily available for visitors coming from around the region. This stretch of the Jackson River offers anglers exceptional smallmouth bass, sunfish, and rock bass fishing. For anglers looking to go after coldwater fish species, the Jackson River above Covington offers the best chance of landing a trophy trout.

Water Quality Challenges

The beauty and environmental quality of the Jackson River can be attributed to the extensive amount of undisturbed land in the area and a regional understanding of the importance of being an environmental steward. Water quality in the watershed is generally good, as indicated by the Jackson’s ability to be home to trout species and other aquatic organisms that are indicators of good stream health. Like many watersheds with areas of development and agriculture, the region is not immune to pollution that comes as a result of various land uses. Urban and agricultural pollution differ in the sources of pollution and how it affects the environment, and thus they require different ways to address decreasing the impacts.

Agricultural pollution occurs both when land is grazed by livestock or used for cultivation. Livestock waste and excess fertilizer runoff can expose a stream to large amounts of nutrients that bring a change to its ambient conditions. Fields that allow livestock to graze directly in a stream increase the rate of bank erosion and are immediately exposed to livestock waste. It also means that a bank lacks a riparian zone, an area along a streambank that has vegetation. These zones are important for maintaining streambank stability, regulating water temperature, and limiting nutrient runoff from nearby fields. State and local agricultural agencies have a variety of programs available for producers to install conservation practices on their land. These programs help subsidize the cost of implementing best management practices (BMPs) that not only help reduce the impact on the environment, but also help increase livestock health and crop yields. Contact the Mountain Soil and Water Conservation District for more information about how to install a BMP on your property.

Waterways are also impacted by urban areas and impervious surfaces. Streets do not allow water to infiltrate the ground and force the water to runoff into the local sewer system. These systems do not receive treatment and runoff directly into local waterways. Urban areas have a high concentration of impervious surface, which can greatly increase pollutant loads into a stream from a city or town. Lawn fertilizers, grass clippings, and pet waste may also find their way into the sewer system during a rain event and contribute to the nutrient loads. Green infrastructure are innovative pollution control practices that can help reduce runoff and increase the amount of greenspace in a community. The idea is to capture impervious surface runoff before it reaches the sewer system, so that natural processes can sequester pollutants and reduce the amount of nutrients entering a waterway. Structures include detention ponds, green roofs, and vegetated swales. All of these BMPs are designed to capture stormwater and filter pollutants. Residents are also encouraged to install BMPs on their properties. Rain barrels and rain gardens are practices you can install around your home to help reduce nutrient loads from your yard. Rain barrels allow you to reuse rainwater and help save you money on your watering bill. Pollinator species benefit from the native flowering plants that are found in rain gardens.

Management practices on all different types of land uses can help beautify your community and improve water quality in your waterways. The Jackson River’s journey through Appalachia is one with many twists and turns, hidden fishing holes, and picturesque river views. Whether you are a summer floater who enjoys sunshine and greenery, or a leaf peeper looking to capture the foliage color change and watch freshly fallen leaves be taken away by the river’s current, the Jackson River will be available year round to help you escape into nature.

Image 2. The Jackson River follows a bend lined with colorful foliage.

Recreational Opportunities

Rainbow and Brown Trout can be found both above and below Lake Moomaw, located at the Bolar Mountain Recreation Area. The Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries has designated the area of the Jackson River between the Gathright Dam and the Covington Water Treatment Plant as fishable trout waters, although areas along this stretch may not be open to the public. Be sure to check out the maps on the Alleghany Highlands Blueway website to see where private property rights may apply.

Image 3. A group of kayakers enjoy a summer day on the Jackson River.

Along with the ample floating opportunities the Jackson River blueway provides, people can utilize the Jackson River Scenic Trail as a way to explore the river from its banks. The trail extends over 14 miles from Covington up to Lake Moomaw. The trail was created by converting an old railroad bed to a gravel path that is ideal for people who enjoy exploring the outdoors at a relaxing pace. With its close proximity to downtown Covington, it gives locals a chance to observe a wide range of wildlife or watch as paddlers make their way downstream. The trail also hosts community events, including the annual Jackson River Marathon. This event includes a full marathon race, a half marathon, a 10K and a 5K race. Each race starts and finishes at the Intervale Trailhead and provides scenic views of the surrounding mountains and the Jackson River.

With so many outdoor recreation opportunities, the Jackson River watershed is a western Virginia gem that all Virginians should venture to in their lifetime.