Area leaders had an opportunity to get a birds-eye view of their localities on an ecological aerial tour of the Rivanna River watershed this week.

On small aircraft flown by volunteer pilots, elected officials and staff followed the Rivanna from its headwaters in the Blue Ridge Mountains and traveled south to the point of fork with the James River in Fluvanna County.

The experience was organized by the Rivanna Conservation Society as part of its 10 day “Go X-Stream Rivanna River Makeover.” One of the goals of the flight was to encourage officials to consider the entire watershed when making decisions with environmental effects, said the society’s executive director, Robbi Savage.

“The intent is for decision makers in both the city and the county to have an opportunity to see what our watershed looks like from the air,” Savage said. “So as they are making decisions, they will have a clear picture of how our Rivanna River integrates with the James and ultimately to the Chesapeake Bay.” 

Earlier this week, city parks and trails planner Chris Gensic and former Albemarle Supervisor Sally Thomas took the flight over the watershed. Albemarle Supervisor Ann H. Mallek, City Councilor Kristin Szakos and the city’s environmental administrator, Kristel Riddervold, were scheduled for a flight Friday but it was postponed due to poor weather.

“It was interesting to see new developments and their apparent scars on the land,” Thomas said. “It gives you a good feeling for what is going on, that sketches or an on-ground photograph don’t give you.”

The flight included views of sites such as the 234-unit Willow Glen development under construction near the airport, the University of Virginia’s Dell stormwater retention system and the Luck Stone quarry on U.S. 250 east of Charlottesville.

Savage pointed out some of the environmental impacts related to these developments before takeoff from the Charlottesville Albemarle Airport. 

She said large development projects often require “clear cutting” of trees and vegetation on the property. When the natural protection of those root systems is disrupted, sediment and pollutants easily flow into nearby tributaries and streams with stormwater runoff.

“While an industry may be doing terrific practices and following all the laws, it still makes a tremendous impact here,” Savage said, noting that the area’s most serious watershed concerns are erosion and sedimentation.

Landing at Charlottesville-Albemarle Airport CHO Runway 3 from Charlottesville Tomorrow on Vimeo.

“We have a special responsibility, as upstream neighbors, to remember that we are not the only ones here,” Savage said. “These beautiful rivers have been here a long time and we have a responsibility to keep them clean.”

The Rivanna Conservation Society has advised local governments on stormwater issues with specific reports recommending best practices for development in Charlottesville and the counties of Albemarle, Greene and Fluvanna.

Savage said all four localities have in some way incorporated stormwater management recommendations into their Comprehensive Plans or have enacted specific ordinances.

In response to the Albemarle County report, Savage said the Board of Supervisors enacted an ordinance ensuring timely reseeding of clear-cut property.

“It used to be that a developer would clear-cut the whole property, then just deal with the development as they got around to it,” Savage said. “Every time it rained, all the loose dirt went into the river.”

The Rivanna Conservation Society is involved with local governments’ future stormwater management decisions as they respond to new state regulations and mandates from the Chesapeake Bay Program aimed at reducing pollution.

The City Council voted last year to create a stormwater utility fee to raise money for infrastructure and management to meet those mandates. The first bills go out to Charlottesville property owners next week.

Albemarle County has hired a consultant to assist with selection of a funding source for future stormwater infrastructure and management. Their goal is to implement a program beginning July 1, 2016.

While local governments across the state are determining their stormwater management plans, Savage said that in the big picture, pollution ends up in the shared rivers and, eventually, the Chesapeake Bay.

“We have been the eyes, ears and voice of the Rivanna River since 1990,” Savage said. “We speak for the river, because it can’t speak for itself.”

Aerial view of Luck Stone quarry and Stone-Robinson Elementary School
Maggie Ambrose, Charlottesville Tomorrow