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Rivanna River Basin Project

Rivanna River

The Executive Summary distills the work of the Rivanna River Roundtable and the Environmental Education Center into key elements. Included in the Summary are the Project Goals and Objectives, the Vision Statement, significant findings, and major recommendations. The Roundtable presents them here as a way of introducing the community to the topic in general, with the hope and expectation that the reader will be enticed into a fuller reading of the Rivanna River Basin Project.

Goals and Objectives

The Rivanna River Basin Project was initiated by the Thomas Jefferson Planning District Commission (TJPDC) to assess past and current conditions of the Rivanna River and its tributaries and to articulate desired future conditions. The Rivanna River Roundtable (RRR) was selected by the TJPDC to develop the project. The Roundtable included twenty-four members from all parts of the Rivanna Watershed, representing all the political jurisdictions and a wide variety of stakeholders - farmers, developers, designers, environmentalists, educators, scientists, preservationists, historians, and authors. In addition, the Environmental Education Center formed Field Teams of interested citizens to monitor water quality in the River and its tributaries.

The residents of the Rivanna Watershed collectively play a large role in determining the quality of the water in and the habitat of the Rivanna and its tributaries. To understand this collective role, the Rivanna River Basin Project addressed the Rivanna River as an ecological system encompassing its physical structure, connection to human history and culture, stream side habitat for birds and other wildlife, and, of course, its fish and aquatic habitat. Because land use impacts water quality, the community of people living within the watershed can, through individual actions and public policy, determine the nature of the river they share.

The overall goal of the project was to gather information that can be used to maintain and improve water quality and to provide this information to citizens and decision makers within the region. In addition to the Roundtable discussions and field team monitoring, the State Division of Mineral Resources completed a study showing how land in the watershed is currently used and what types of vegetation are present; a forecast of future residential development was not completed due to limitations in data.

The Roundtable reviewed these studies as well as assessing the chemical, biological, and streambank characteristics of the main stem of the Rivanna and its tributaries. As a result the Roundtable made a number of recommendations relating to water quality improvements. Finally, it has identified some strategies that will contribute to improving water quality and community enjoyment of the River.

Vision Statement

The Rivanna River Roundtable has developed a vision for the future of the basin based on the understanding that a healthy landscape, diverse ecosystem, clean air, clean water, and beautiful scenery add value to the local economy, and sustain the quality of life.

We envision:

  • a river treasured as an investment in the future of the region, a resource worthy protection;
  • a river occupying a vital place in the continuing history of the region;
  • creeks and rivers which define what it means to be part of a special place, reinforcing residents? sense of place and community;
  • streams and rivers as accessible recreational resources, providing inspiration and educational opportunities for future generations;
  • a river closely integrated into the cultural life of the region;
  • streambeds providing habitat for river life and containing less silt, more rocks and riffles;
  • forests and trees providing habitat and shading the streams and rivers, thus providing a habitat for fish and birds;
  • a landscape that allows rainwater to seep slowly through the ground, providing recharge for summer creeks, while limiting flooding;
  • swimmable, fishable streams for our future generations;
  • clear and clean waters bound by fully vegetated stream banks, with topsoil in place;
  • a future created by interested citizens working together and celebrating our need to return to the river as a source of daily pleasure, a place of commerce, and a place of occupation, and as a reminder of our history.

Significant Findings

Significant findings are summarized in relation to river history, hydrology, streambank structure, water quality, and land use.


The River and its environs have significant historical importance and have played a central role in the development of the region from the era of Indian pre-history, Colonial and Revolutionary times, and early industrial development. The Community has not yet developed the means to connect with the River's cultural heritage and its resources, including remnants of the Indian period, early mills, and the canal system.


The pattern of river discharge (water volume) shows undesirable changes associated with the early stages of urbanization, which result from increasing areas of hard surfaces (impervious to water). Stormwater run-off is rapid and contributes to bank erosion and stream side damage. Summertime low flows are getting lower because rainwater runs off rapidly into the stream rather than being stored as slowly-released groundwater.

If these trends continue, as they have in some cities, discharge will be increasingly destructive during high flows and reduced to a trickle at other times. This will eliminate much of the river?s potential value for both people and wildlife.

Appropriate corrective techniques are available, and together with continued close monitoring, can stabilize or reverse these trends, retaining the river?s economic and ecological value.

Shape of the Stream Banks (Morphology)

Stream banks along the Rivanna range from being unvegetated and highly unstable, with great potential for erosion and collapse, to recovering re-vegetated stream banks, to fairly stable, fully-vegetated stream banks.

The North Fork sites show the deteriorating water quality and poor aquatic habitat characteristic of areas with unstable, eroding banks. Eighteen areas exhibit conditions where streambank erosion is causing a diminished habitat for flora and fauna.

Water Quality

Water quality in the River is poor under high flow conditions. Storm water runoff carries high levels of pollutants, including nitrogen, phosphorus, silt (suspended solids), ammonia, and fecal coliform (from animal or human waste). In addition, relative pH is high. At least two of these conditions were found at each monitoring site, indicating that the quality of the River's waters is periodically threatened during heavy rainfall.

Dissolved oxygen, necessary for all aquatic life, is low in the River in the segment from the South Fork Rivanna Reservoir dam to Route 29 due to discharge from the South Fork dam. This could be easily corrected.

The small number of water quality samples routinely collected by government agencies are not coordinated in time with flow conditions, thus, the deterioration of water quality at high flows was undetected until the field work of the Roundtable was done. Water quality and stream discharge volume are currently measured at different sites by different agencies, which, together with the small number of samples, makes interpretation of results and community planning difficult. We do not know when runoff reaches a critical volume, how long it takes the River to recover, or the effect of land uses and controls.

The streams closest to the urban area received the lowest scores under the Save Our Streams (SOS) protocol, which measures small streambottom-dwelling creatures. Meadow Creek, the only segment not achieving an excellent rating in the Save Our Streams (SOS) protocol used for field-testing, presents an opportunity for rehabilitation and stream restoration.

Biological indicators of the river and river bank conditions yielded mixed results indicating early, but reversible, deterioration. Streambed insects were diverse and healthy at all but the most urban sites. Rivanna fish communities are generally in good condition, but with a few declining trends and species losses detectable in the somewhat patchy historic records. Bird species used to characterize healthy stream side forests were poorly represented, suggesting sub-optimal land use and erosion potential near streams.

Land Use

Coverage. Streams flowing out of forests provide very high quality water; approximately 64% of the watershed is now covered by forest.

The second largest land cover classification is pastureland, about 20% of the coverage. If highly grazed, pastureland can be ranked relatively impervious. Poorly managed stream banks adjacent to any land use, including agricultural land, have a very high erosion potential. Vegetated banks can slow topsoil loss. Vegetated buffer strips, anywhere along the River, can stabilize streamflow and stream banks, reduce sediment loading in streams and reservoirs, lower summer water temperatures, and filter chemical and organic pollution.

Highly impervious land uses contribute to runoff and loading of nutrients (nitrogen and phosphorus) into the River. These uses cover 15% of the drainage area.

Risk Classifications. The percentage of land cover which is impervious indicates a level of risk to the water quality and aquatic biology. The risk levels range from Healthy (0%-10% coverage)to Degraded (>25% coverage). Based on the percentage of impervious land coverage 75% of the basin is classified as healthy, 21% of the land is classified at risk, (11%-15% coverage), and 2% of the land is degrading (16%-25%) and 1% is degraded (>25%).

Degraded areas, are the 29 North and Free Bridge areas of Albemarle County and Lake Monticello. All Charlottesville watersheds are considered degraded.


Develop a Corridor Plan to guide decision making related to preservation and use of the Rivanna River.

The plan should be developed by an oversight group, possibly as continuation of the Rivanna River Roundtable, with a charge approved by the local jurisdictions and funds for development of the plan.

The plan should address mechanisms to incorporate watershed management planning into local land use plans; best management practices, including buffers, riparian owner and community issues; recreation areas, uses and access points; historic and archaeologically significant sites; redesign of commercial and industrial uses and other development; special designations of certain rivers and streams; integration of policies and ordinances to protect and preserve the River; exploration of the potential for a regional or state Rivanna River Corridor Linear Park.

Develop a comprehensive, systematic and coordinated data base of all information related to the Rivanna River.

Include consistent protocols for data collection and expand the Save Our Streams (SOS) protocol and monitoring by volunteers, work with the Department of Environmental Quality to develop multiple sample protocols and with the Department of Game and Inland Fisheries to collect more frequent fish and bird data; identify the nature and source of toxins, metals and non-point source pollution, and develop more complete information on hydrology and morphology.

Establish a comprehensive, multi-disciplinary, interagency data collection and monitoring program, which brings together all interested parties under one umbrella, and names the responsible lead group charged with oversight and stewardship of the River and its Basin.

Request state and federal agencies to co-locate sampling sites and coordinate sampling done at the sites, thus efficiently maximizing the amount of data.

Request Rivanna Water and Sewer Authority adopt biological and habitat goals in managing water resources and establish minimum instream flow to protect all uses, include that for fish and wildlife habitat.

Request local governments work together on streambank restoration, erosion control, storm water management, and education of themselves and the public.

Implement design practices that promote, preserve, and protect the Rivanna River.

Request local government to incorporate design practices into site plan review and other land use plans and incentives to use vegetated buffers and other best management practices; to mitigate impacts of existing impervious surfaces, and reduce impervious surfaces in new development; restore stream banks; reduce sedimentation. Review local ordinances and practices as well as work with the Virginia Department of Transportation toward the goal of stream protection.

Expand stewardship of the River.

Local governments should lead the way to involve the public in education and protection of the Rivanna River by providing information about best management practices and economic support such as cost share programs; developing a public education program and literature on the State of the River; and instituting water conservation practices and practicing water reclamation, and a watershed-based focus for stewardship.

Non-profit groups, such as the Environmental Education Center should be supported in their efforts to continue monitoring and providing a focus for stewardship.

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