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Meet Greg Velzy: James River ‘ParkStar’

The Friends of the James River Park just released the latest in their ongoing video series about people making a difference in and around the park. Click here or see below to watch the video.

From the Friends’ website: In addition to being a Board Member for the Friends of James River Park, Greg Velzy is the longest-serving Board Member of the James River Outdoor Coalition, Chair of the Falls of the James Scenic River Advisory Committee, and Council Member of the James River Advisory Council. Why is he so busy? Because his 50 years in Richmond have made him fall in love with the river and our Park.

Greg enjoys the Park for hiking, running, and especially paddling. Like many of us, he admires the “Grass Roots” nature of the support for the Park. He considers himself one of many who are inspired to contribute to the health of the James River Park System. He also told us that one need not found an organization or join a non-profit to make a difference. The average Park user can exact change during a simple visit by stopping for just a second and picking up a piece of trash.

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Va. State Parks’ Big Year: Nearly $300 Million in Visitor Spending in 2019

Governor Ralph Northam yesterday announced the results of a Virginia Tech report that found Virginia State Parks stimulated more than $286.2 million in visitor spending in 2019. Visitor spending increased by 14.9% over 2018 levels.

“The economic power of nature-based tourism is undeniable, and Virginia State Parks are a shining example,” said Governor Northam. “We must continue to invest in these world class recreational assets that welcome more than 11 million visitors per year and inject hundreds of millions of dollars directly into local economies.”

The annual economic report is a result of a partnership between the Virginia Tech Pamplin College of Business and the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR), the agency that manages Virginia State Parks. Spending data and other information were collected from thousands of visitors to compile the report.

Several factors contributed to the increased impact, including improved weather conditions in 2019 versus the record-level rainfall in 2018. Fewer rainy weekends in 2019 spurred park visitation and positively impacted spending associated with state parks.

“The findings of this economic impact study highlight the importance of the state park system to the economy of Virginia,” said report author Dr. Vince Magnini of Virginia Tech’s Pamplin College of Business. “In particular, many of the parks stimulate economic activity in rural areas. Year-over-year economic impact growth can be attributed to several factors, but the key catalyst is the expansion of the park system. A number of new parks have either opened or are in the process of opening.”

New state parks currently under development include Machicomoco and Middle Peninsula in Gloucester County, Seven Bends in Shenandoah County, and Clinch River State Park in Tazwell, Russell, Wise and Scott counties.

According to the report:

– In 2019, visitors to Virginia State Parks spent an estimated $286.2 million in the state. About 45%, $130.2 million, of this spending was by out-of-state visitors.

– The total economic activity stimulated by Virginia State Parks during 2019 was approximately $437 million.

– The total economic impact of Virginia State Parks in 2019 was approximately $343 million. Economic impact is a measure of “fresh money” infused into the state’s economy that likely would have not been generated without the park system.

– At the individual park level, economic impacts range from $795,000 to more than $43 million.

– In 2019, for every $1 of general tax revenue allocated to state parks, $17.68, on average, was generated in fresh money that would not be there if not for Virginia State Parks.

– Economic activity stimulated by Virginia State Parks generated about $25.3 million in state and local tax revenues during 2019. As such, $1.30 in state and local taxes were generated for every dollar of tax money spent on the park system.

The economic activity stimulated by visitation to Virginia State Parks supported approximately 4,180 jobs in the state in 2019.

For the full Virginia State Parks Economic Impact Report 2019, click here. For more information about Virginia State Parks, visit www.virginiastateparks.gov.

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A Mid-Session Update from the 2020 General Assembly

Our friends at the JRA recently released a mid-session report on how their river-focused priorities are faring at the General Assembly. These range from fencing cattle out of streams to managing menhaden in the Chesapeake Bay to regulating above-ground storage tanks.

They have a separate breakout for Governor Ralph Northam’s proposed budget and the House and Senate appropriations committees’ suggested changes to that budget. “As you may recall, Governor Northam proposed record-setting funding for Virginia’s natural resources,” the JRA writes. “While the General Assembly has pared this funding back, we remain hopeful that clean water programs will get a much-needed boost in 2021.”

Specifically, they address where things stand on helping farmers protect their local streams, tackling stormwater challenges, and upgrading wastewater treatment plants on the James River.

There’s a lot to dig into in the piece. Click here to get educated about these issues…

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Maymont is for Citizen-Science (and Bird) Lovers

Have you heard of the Great Backyard Bird Count? It’s a citizen science project in ornithology and also a great way to introduce kids to the wonders of nature and science.

Conducted annually in mid-February, the event is supported by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and the National Audubon Society. During the four-day event, birdwatchers all around the world are invited to count and report details of birds in the area in which they live. Data is submitted online via a web interface and compiled for use in scientific research. The GBBC was the first citizen science project to collect bird sightings online and display results in near real-time.

If all this sounds great, but you have no birding experience, have no fear! Maymont has your back. This Saturday the 15th you can explore the grounds on a fun, informative and guided birdwatching walk. Look for native species, enjoy the sights and sounds of nature, and collect valuable information about winter feathered residents for the national program. The walk is designed for all ages and skill levels. Bring your own binoculars for the best views; Maymont will have some starter binoculars to share. Register online by February 14. Walk-ups welcome, space permitting.

Click here for more.

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Saving the Bay by Recycling a Mighty Mollusk

Maybe you’ve seen a “Don’t Chuck that Shuck” bumper sticker, but what exactly does oyster shell recycling involve, and why does it matter? Oysters are important not only to seafood lovers but for anyone who cares about clean water, protecting our coastlines, and Virginia’s economy. The list of oysters’ ecological and economic services is long, and the Virginia Oyster Shell Recycling Program (VOSRP) is on a mission to help their populations thrive today and long into the future.

One adult oyster can filter 50 to 60 gallons of water per day. Oyster reefs shelter future generations and a multitude of other species. They also stabilize land, helping shield vulnerable coastlines from erosion. These mollusks are a popular protein for millions of people, and as such, an economic powerhouse for the Chesapeake Bay watershed.

This pearl-producing bivalve morphs throughout its life cycle. From a fertilized egg, it transitions through various larval stages into a veliger, which develops two shells. Next, the roughly two-week-old pediveliger grows a foot and eye and begins searching for a hard surface to cling to. Once attached, it’s called a spat, and spats mature into adults. In the wild, oyster reefs provide the perfect habitat. After all, what better place for a young spat to grow up than in an environment that already supports their kin?

The problem arises when we combine overharvesting with tossing shells in the trash. This means fewer spat with only fragmented, shrinking reefs to harbor them. That’s where VOSRP comes in. 

Upon its launch in 2013, the program partnered with four Richmond restaurants to save nearly six tons of shells in only four months. Today, over 60 Virginia restaurants save shells for collection, curing, seeding, and their ultimate return to the environment as reefs, diverting nearly 63 tons from landfills each year. Also involved are ten oyster companies, some of which supply farm-raised oysters for participating restaurants to serve on the half-shell, adding to the net gain of shells in the Bay.

After curing for almost a year in piles at storage sites like the VCU Rice Rivers Center, the recycled shells are sifted and bagged by volunteers like us Virginia Master Naturalists did during a recent workday. From there, they are bound for specialized tanks, or “jacuzzis,” as some experts like VOSRP Director Todd Janeski fondly refer to them, to be seeded with spat. Once spat attach to the shells in the tanks (each can host up to 15 spat), they return to the water at restoration sites.

In this way, the program doesn’t simply reinforce reefs with natural substrate; it is actively populating our waterways with living oysters. The VCU Rice Rivers Center estimates that if every volunteer-collected shell is returned to the wild with spat, they are “replenishing more than 11 million oysters in the Chesapeake Bay” every year. And more oysters is a boon for all of us.

Check out this 2018 short film about VOSRP, a grand-prize winner of the 2018 RVA Environmental Film Festival

Get Involved (adapted from the VCU Rice Rivers Center):

Donate (select “Oyster Shell Recycling Projects” from the drop-down).

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Big Water Coming This Way!

If you’ve been following the forecast over the past 24 hours, you know some serious rain will lash Richmond starting later today. That same drenching rain will also hit the mountain headwaters of the James River, and that means we’re in for flood conditions come this weekend in downtown RVA.

If rain projections hold, “James Brown” could rise to nearly 16 feet (at the Westham Gauge) by 8 a.m.(ish) Saturday. Currently, it sits at just under 6 feet. That’s a 10-foot wall of water coming this way. The height could approach last February’s 16-footer, which was the highest the James had been in Richmond since 2010.

Makes me wonder how much of Sharp’s Island will actually be an island. Will it look like this?

Or will the situation more resemble this archival pic from Times-Dispatch in the 1950’s?

No matter what the crest, the James is always an amazing sight at water levels like the ones expected this weekend. Do yourself a favor and get down there.

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GA Committees to Take Up Clean Water Bills; We Need You!

I took a canoe trip on the upper James River this past summer with a friend. The weather was great. We had decent luck fishing, and I set my personal record, eating six hot dogs in 24 hours. In short, it was awesome. But two other things stuck out in my mind: 1) the number of cows we saw either out in the middle of the river or along the bank and 2) how muddy the James became downstream of its confluence with Catawba Creek after a not-so-heavy, localized rainstorm.

I mention all this because, for the first time in a long time, the General Assembly has a real opportunity to address these issues and make headway on what agriculture contributes to degraded water quality.

Starting today, House Bill 1422 and Senate Bill 704 will be taken up in House and Senate Committees. As our friends in the James River Association explain: HB 1422/SB 704 sets a backstop deadline for fencing cattle from perennial streams and for implementing Nutrient Management Plans on cropland. Together, stream fencing and NMP implementation as prescribed in these two bills would substantially reduce polluted runoff from reaching our waterways. These practices are also two of the most cost-effective approaches to improving water quality and are critical to meeting our Chesapeake Bay cleanup goals on time. Nutrient management plans benefit producers by minimizing fertilizer costs and maximizing yields while cattle fencing improves herd health by ensuring cleaner water and reducing exposure to diseases like mastitis.  

In addition, the two bills, 1) Encourage farmers to sign up for funding through the Virginia Agricultural Cost-Share program by 2025. Farmers are protected from the backstop deadline if they have signed up for but have not yet received funding. 2) Include flexible options for cattle fencing practices, including temporary and portable fencing and designated stream crossings. 3) Include a review process that will prevent the deadline from going into effect if Virginia meets its Bay Cleanup goals for these two practices through voluntary means by 2025. 

The JRA considers these bills a huge step toward greater water quality in the entire James River watershed. If you feel strongly, like we do, about this issue, please consider contacting one of the representatives on the committees. Click here to do just that. It’s super easy and super important.

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City Council Unanimously Approves JRPS Master Plan

The Richmond City Council recently voted unanimously to approve Phase 1 of the James River Park Master Plan. The Master Plan came together after months of meetings, public input and support! The Friends of the James River Park championed the plan and took the lead in raising funds to create it. The non-profit received this note from JRPS Superintendent Bryce Wilk:

“Dear Friends of James River Park System,

I want to thank you for all the help you provided this past year and beyond in helping to shape the James River Park System Master Plan! Last night was the end of “Phase 1” with the official adoption of the Master Plan by City Council in a unanimous decision. This means that the City of Richmond recognizes this as an official planning document and will be referenced in planning for future projects. When decisions are made about development and capital improvement budgets, the Master Plan will be referenced – making for a stronger case. I mention “Phase 1” as this is just the beginning of a 10-year plan. We must continue to advocate for the James River, the Park, and the people of Richmond and the surrounding area. There are many exciting potentials listed in the Master Plan, but continuing to make the Master Plan relevant will be our next challenge. From our strategic planning retreat, we will be looking to implement this plan on a consistent basis so that it does not collect dust on a shelf somewhere.

“The adoption was never really in doubt because we were diligent, reached out to every community in the City, and maintaining this wonderful resource for now and future generations is one of the rare universal truths.”

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Putting the James River First: Priorities at the General Assembly

The James River Association’s Anna Killius has a useful guide to the JRA’s list of priorities at this year’s General Assembly session, which is almost a week old now.

2019 was “a great year for clean water at the Capital,” she writes. “With your support, the James River Association-backed legislation to clean up contaminated coal ash and secured a budget with unprecedented funding for agricultural conservation practices.”

Their goals for 2020 appear just as ambitious. From Killius’ post:

1. Secure at least $400 million in funding for clean water and land conservation programs. Governor Northam’s budget proposal includes record-breaking funding for protecting our natural resources and would put us on the path to a healthy James River and restored Chesapeake Bay by 2025. We’ll be working with our partners to get this proposal across the finish line with the following initiatives: $180 million for the Stormwater Local Assistance Fund to tackle polluted runoff and localized flooding in urban communities; $120 million for wastewater treatment upgrades so that all waterways receive the same standard of protection; At least $90 million for the Virginia Agricultural Cost-Share Program to help farmers install conservation practices and restore their local streams; $40 million for Virginia’s Land Conservation Foundation to protect farms, forests, parks, and other natural areas for future generations.

2. Reduce bacteria pollution by fencing livestock out of all streams by 2025. Farmland covers almost 12% of the James River watershed and is one of the largest sources of polluted runoff. Virginia farmers have made substantial progress installing conservation practices like cattle fencing, which keeps livestock — and their waste — out of our waterways. But to meet our Chesapeake Bay goals and reach a grade-A James River, we need to pick up the pace and encourage all farmers to keep cows out of their streams by 2025.

3. Protect our waterways from hazardous chemicals stored in above-ground tanks. Throughout Virginia, thousands of manufacturers and other businesses store potentially hazardous chemicals in above-ground storage tanks, but we lack comprehensive safety regulations for these tanks. Spills could pose a substantial risk of harm to public health and natural resources, including sources of drinking water like the James River. We need a strong regulatory program for above-ground tanks storing hazardous chemicals that requires registration, reporting, safety specifications, and spill prevention and response planning.

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Get Your Nature Fix at the Wild & Scenic Film Festival

Our friends at the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay are hosting the group’s 2nd annual screening of the Wild & Scenic Film Festival, one of the largest environmental film festivals in North America, here in Richmond on Thursday, January 23, 2020.

What: Wild and Scenic Film Festival. Where: The Science Museum of Virginia, 2500 W Broad St, Richmond, VA 23220. When: January 23rd, 2020, 5:30 – 9:30 p.m. (Pre-movie happy hour at 5:30 with Alewerks Brewing and Goatocado. Films begin at 6:30) Purchase your tickets here! 

The Wild & Scenic Film Festival works with environmental groups across the globe to host the film festival as a way to outreach into their communities and bring together a diverse audience. The goal is to use film to inspire. To keep up to date on the event and films we will be screening, check out the event Facebook page. 

The Alliance hopes to use the festival to increase a better community understanding of the connection we share with the planet and our role as stewards to keep it healthy for the next generations.

Check out the film fest trailer here.

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