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A River Runs to It
Group gathers to discuss and promote Rivanna River renaissance
Rivanna River during a rain storm
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Rivanna River during a rain storm
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Sean Tubbs | Friday, October 02, 2015 at 5:36 p.m.

Policymakers from throughout the region gathered Friday to discuss the ecological and economic possibilities of the Rivanna River, a waterway that both Albemarle and Charlottesville officials have called an underused community asset.

“Welcome to a future where we work together to enhance the environment while strengthening the community around our rivers,” said Ann H. Mallek, an Albemarle County supervisor and chairwoman of the Rivanna River Basin Commission.

The Rivanna River is a 42.1-mile-long tributary of the James River named after Queen Anne, an 18th-century monarch who presided while England and Scotland united into Great Britain.

In the 21st century, Charlottesville and Albemarle are seeking ways to further work together to use the river to unite the community’s natural resources. A four-mile stretch of the waterway serves as a border between the two localities.

Last year, the City Council and the Board of Supervisors agreed to work together on a joint plan.

One idea is to help create a unified network that integrates trails in the city and the county. Such a trail on the James River is one of the most popular destinations in Richmond.

“With that popularity comes challenges, and how do we create more spaces?” said Justin Doyle, community conservation manager for the James River Association.

Doyle said Richmond created a riverfront plan that will integrate several components into what will eventually be a trail system that improves bike and pedestrian connections throughout the whole community.

“As you begin to reconnect with the Rivanna River, look for those opportunities to build on existing infrastructure, reuse existing buildings, and do it in a sustainable manner,” Doyle said.

One existing building is the former Woolen Mills, located very near the confluence of Moores Creek and the Rivanna. One local developer is hoping to redevelop the main 100,000-square-foot, four-story building and its accessory structures.

“My thought is to do a mixed-used site with a live-work-play aspect to it,” said Brian Roy. “And certainly there is the ability to tap into the Rivanna Trail.”

Roy’s project received preliminary support from the Board of Supervisors earlier this year when it agreed to amend the Comprehensive Plan to allow for more residential use on the property. However, he will need to convince the Federal Emergency Management Agency to alter its maps to allow the project to proceed.

Segments of the Rivanna River are considered impaired by both the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

One of the major pollutants is sediment carried by stormwater that flows over impervious surfaces. Much of the pollution has historically come from clear-cutting of land in the watershed without environmental stewardship.

“It took us over two centuries to get where we’re at to get where we’re at with the damage,” said Nicholas DiPasquale, director of the EPA’s Chesapeake Bay program, which was created more than 30 years ago to reduce pollution and restore the bay’s health.

DiPasquale said restoration will be an ongoing process that will respond to increasing urbanization and challenges such as new chemicals caused by pharmaceuticals and climate change.

“This is going to be a lifetime adventure and we’re going to have to deal with these new challenges as they come up,” DiPasquale said.

Albemarle and Charlottesville have collaborated on regional water quality since 1972 when they agreed to form the Rivanna Water & Sewer Authority to handle water and sewage.

The authority operates the Moores Creek Wastewater Treatment plan, which was upgraded in recent years to reduce the amount of nitrogen and phosphorous released into the Rivanna.

However development around the river occurs, one member of the Albemarle Planning Commission said there are opportunities to repair a fragmented ecosystem by weaving together a green infrastructure network.

“The big problem for the Rivanna is really stormwater,” said Karen Firehock, who also served on the city’s Planning Commission. “We still have a lot of untreated water going directly to the Rivanna, so the challenge is, how do we get it to soak in?”

Firehock said development areas should work more like a forest by absorbing as much stormwater as possible. She singled out the Riverbluff development above the Rivanna River in Charlottesville as an example of how this can be accomplished.

“That full development has permeable pavement in all the driveways, rain gardens, and they let people access some of their property along the Rivanna,” Firehock said.

But a good portion of Friday’s conference dealt with efforts to attract more people to the water through recreational opportunities.

“Getting people out there to do boating, fishing and nature viewing with their kids will be a big way about how we get people down there,” said Chris Gensic, Charlottesville’s parks and trails planner.

Entrepreneurs are also eyeing the river.

“We are planning to open next spring as the first river outfitter in Charlottesville,” said Gabe Silver, of Rivanna River Company. The location is not definite yet, but Silver said he believes there is enough demand for people to rent equipment and to be shuttled back upstream at the end of their journey.

“I think we can make the Clean Water Act goals of making the waterway ‘more swimmable and fishable’ mean more to more people,” he said.

The Rivanna Renaissance conference continues Saturday with a series of events at the Lewis & Clark Exploratory Center at Darden Towe Park. Events include a lesson on how to monitor water quality. Outdoor events will be held weather-permitting. A swim lesson event will be held at Crow Pool in Charlottesville rather than at the Elks Lodge.
 

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