Kids kayak and play in the river with the Rivanna Conservation Alliance

How To Revitalize a River

Photo: Rivanna Conservation Alliance

Virginia nonprofit Rivanna Conservation Alliance is making a difference with river clean-ups and restoration efforts, plus stream monitoring, education programming and local community engagement projects.

The central Virginia-based Rivanna Conservation Alliance has a singular mission: to make the Rivanna River better. And more specifically, to make this artery atop the Chesapeake Bay watershed a better asset for kids, better for kayakers, better for aquatic species, and better for the community. Founded in 2016 when two longstanding nonprofit organizations merged (StreamWatch and the Rivanna Conservation Society), the alliance works with various community partners to conserve the Rivanna River and its tributaries through scientific stream monitoring, active restoration and advocacy.

It’s an important job as the Rivanna is the largest tributary to the James River above Richmond, with a watershed that covers 766 square miles. The banks of the river were originally home to the Monacan Indian Nation, but the Rivanna became the source for agriculture once the Europeans settled in the area. Today, the Rivanna is home to endangered species like the James Spinymussel. It’s also the anchor to a robust public park system throughout Charlottesville and the surrounding area as well as a hotbed of recreation for paddlers, swimmers and anglers.

“It’s amazing how popular the Rivanna has become during the pandemic,” says Lisa Wittenborn, executive director for the Rivanna Conservation Alliance. “People were looking for a way to get outside and escape the heat, and they rediscovered this river right in their backyards.” Here are five ways the Rivanna Conservation Alliance (RCA) is engaging (and re-engaging) the community to conserve the Rivanna River and its tributaries.

Getting Outside During the Pandemic

In September 2020, The RCA organized the first River Round-Up as a safe way for the community to give back to this newly “rediscovered” local waterway. Over the first two years, the RCA recruited 245 volunteers who cleaned up 67 miles of streams and trails, removing 192 tires and 213 large trash bags of refuse from the watershed. During the third roundup this past September, RCA volunteers cleaned an additional 27 miles of streams and trails, removing 148 bags of trash and 173 tires.

Monitoring the Water

The RCA is certified to collect stream data at the same level as the state environmental agency. In other words, trained volunteers and staff are doing scientific research regarding stream health and bacteria levels within the Rivanna and its tributaries. “Our watershed is one of the most monitored in the entire state,” says Wittenborn. “And it’s not just our staff out there. We have 100 trained volunteers out there doing the research.”

That sort of thorough monitoring results in data that can be used by the local government and reported to the EPA. Not only does that critical information help inform legislation, it also helps the community better understand the overall health of the river. For example, the RCA monitors levels of bacteria and reports the level of E. coli at popular recreation sites every weekend during the summer.

A cleanup on the river with Rivanna Conservation Alliance Photo: Rivanna Conservation Alliance

Working with Middle School Kids

Five years ago, the RCA started leading a unique program for a local middle school called Meaningful Watershed Educational Experience that included a full-day field trip that had students practice stream testing and participate in action projects such as planting trees and building bee houses. This year, the RCA is expanding the program to work with six different middle schools in the community, many of which have a concentration of students from low-income families.

Restoring Stream Buffers

In recent years, the RCA has increased its stream restoration efforts, particularly in the area of stream-buffer forests, which help stabilize the banks of the river while also filtering out pollutants from stormwater runoff. In the last year, the RCA planted more than nine acres of trees along the Rivanna River, totaling roughly 2,750 individual trees, creating 200-foot-wide buffers along the river in an otherwise urban area. The organization also worked diligently to manage invasive species like Asiatic bittersweet and honeysuckle vines, which can strangle native trees and decimate the forest along the river’s bank.

Introducing Underserved Communities to the River

In partnership with Public Lands, the RCA has created a recreation project that works with a variety of groups, such as the Boys and Girls Club, within the communities surrounding the Rivanna River, which might not have easy access opportunities. “A lot of kids in our community don’t have a lot of experience with the outdoors, and many of them are scared,” Wittenborn says. “But in just the short time they’re on the water, you can see something change in them. They go from being scared, to being curious. All it takes is getting them outside.”

Volunteers with the RCA organize and guide out-and-back canoe excursions from the local Rivanna River Company to a beach along the river so they can experience recreation on the Rivanna in a safe way.

— Public Lands supports the Rivanna Conservation Alliance through the Public Lands Fund. Public Lands is committed to donating 1% of all sales to the Public Lands Fund, which supports organizations protecting new lands, improving existing lands, and furthering access and equity in the outdoors.

All articles are for general informational purposes.  Each individual’s needs, preferences, goals and abilities may vary.  Be sure to obtain all appropriate training, expert supervision and/or medical advice before engaging in strenuous or potentially hazardous activity.