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ODU Biology Students Volunteer for Colley Bay Wetland Restoration Project

Photo of three ODU grad students Matthew Muller, Todd Egerton and Matthew SemcheskiMuller (from left), Egerton and Semcheski in Colley Bay wetland they helped to restore. Photo of Colley Bay shoreline 2010Northern Colley Bay shoreline as it existed before restoration. Photo of restoration work at Colley Bay wetlands.Restoration work produced the new Colley Bay wetlands. Photo of student volunteer Colin HoweColin Howe was a student volunteer on wetland restoration project. photo of Lexi Tellinger and other student volunteers Lexi Tellinger (foreground) and other student volunteers at Colley Bay.

A few years ago the northeast shore of Colley Bay behind the WHRO parking lot and near the playing field of Larchmont Elementary School was an ugly line of concrete and asphalt riprap interrupted here and there by trees with severely eroded root bases. Today the scene has changed for the better, and students at Old Dominion University are among the volunteers who made it happen.

The work to return this stretch of Lafayette River estuary shore near ODU to natural wetlands has been part of a larger initiative by the city of Norfolk, and the goal of the work extends far beyond beautification, says Kevin Du Bois, a wetland scientist who works for the city's Bureau of Environmental Services and is the technical expert who advises the Norfolk Wetlands Board.

Du Bois has been able to leverage the impact of the initiative by engaging volunteers to supplement the city's contracted wetland restoration efforts. The volunteers have included undergraduate and graduate students of ODU's Department of Biological Sciences, members of conservation groups and members of civic leagues. The environmental stewardship that is the focus of the initiative plays a large role in persuading volunteers to pitch in, he said.

In the United States, only New Orleans faces a greater threat from sea level rise than Hampton Roads, and the first response of many local property owners to rising water may be to fall back on the common practice of "hardening" shorelines. This means building bulkheads or reinforcing shorelines with the rocks and chunks of concrete that are often called riprap.

But hardened shorelines can still be subject to erosion, and environmentalists are quick to note that building hard defenses usually eliminates the wetlands that nourish wildlife, filter out pollutants and provide any number of other environmentally friendly services such as providing nurseries for wildlife.

Du Bois said that some riprap along estuaries in Norfolk amounts to no more than "shoreline rubble...for indiscriminate hardening and stabilization." With his natural solution, the gradual slope and permeability of wetlands can prevent erosion and keep water from encroaching inland.

Those behind the Norfolk initiative see the work on public land around Colley Bay as what Du Bois calls a "highly visible, public demonstration project" that could help persuade private landowners to adopt and implement living shoreline erosion control techniques.

ODU students have had roles in the Colley Bay shoreline restoration since 2009. That was the year three biology graduate students, Todd Egerton, Matthew Semcheski and Matthew Muller, took on a small demonstration project to get restoration started on the north side of the bay behind Larchmont Elementary School.

"I was familiar with the Lafayette River through kayaking, fishing and annual wetland cleanups near the Larchmont Library and behind Larchmont Elementary on Colley Bay," said Egerton, who received a Ph.D. in ecological sciences from ODU this past spring and is now a self-supported research scientist with the university's Department of Biological Sciences. His research involved algal blooms in the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries, including the Lafayette River, and he had become a volunteer working on cleaning up wetlands in Norfolk. "Still," he added, "I was looking for something more proactive in terms of restoration."

As it turned out, Semcheski and Muller also had wetland restoration on their minds, and the three of them joined forces.

"We decided to contact a member of the Larchmont-Edgewater Civic League, Mike O'Hearn, and ask about any areas in the neighborhood that needed special attention," said Semcheski, who is nearing completion of his doctorate in ecological sciences. "What happened next blossomed into a community/ODU relationship now going on for four-plus years. We met Mike and city wetland scientist Kevin Du Bois at the water's edge behind Larchmont Elementary School, and they outlined a current and future plan for the area."

The graduate students agreed to take on a small wetland restoration project to be completed that spring/summer. "Along with a similar project on the opposite shoreline, this would serve as a physical 'bookend,' and as inspiration and proof of concept for a much larger project for Colley Bay," Semcheski said. "Along with much help from Kevin, as well as members of the Highland Park Civic League such as Dale Ryder and Jim Hazel, and the Lafayette Wetlands Partnership's John Stewart, we spent months designing the project and ironing out details. Matt Muller and I recruited grad student volunteers and installation was completed in June 2010."

Today, the wetland between those two bookends has been restored, providing a total of 700 linear feet of gradually sloping shoreline. To accomplish this, the riprap rubble and shoreline trees and bushes had to be removed and sand brought in to form a narrow beach. Offshore, near the point of low mean water, rock sills, together with coir logs (manmade from biodegradable material such as coconut fibers), were placed parallel to the shore to keep the sand in place and give the wetland a chance to become established after marsh grasses were planted.

New trees have been planted, as well, but far enough back from the water so they will not grow to shade the wetland, which would stunt the growth of marsh grass.

Ashley Bunch, a senior who was the leader of wetland restoration volunteers from the ODU Marine Biology Student Association (MBSA), pointed out that undergraduates made a significant contribution to the work that the graduate students had started. The undergraduates' first task was to dig up sparse patches of Spartina grasses at the Colley Bay restoration site before contractors with heavy equipment came in to remove rubble and create the sandy slopes. Those valuable grasses were transplanted at other restoration sites. Once the shoreline was prepared, the students planted substantial stands of grasses at Colley Bay.

"I put in roughly 25-30 hours during the fall 2012 and spring 2013 semesters," Bunch said. "I think MBSA did a wonderful job recruiting participants. Students were very eager to help, even if it meant giving up time on their Saturdays. I loved working at the restoration sites. There is no better feeling than to see a restoration site transform from start to finish and to know that we did it as a team."

Muller, who received a master's in biology from ODU in 2010 and is now working on a master's in business administration, said the project has been a source of pride for the volunteers from ODU, and for the biology department in general. "Moreover, what made this project so rewarding and unique were those relationships that we fostered with the community groups and city at large. The synergy of these groups working together was a great learning experience for us and has been a springboard to continue a positive impact on the Lafayette beyond Colley Bay," Muller added.

Fred Dobbs, a marine microbial ecologist who is a professor in the Department of Ocean, Earth and Atmospheric Sciences at ODU and resident of a neighborhood near Colley Bay, has been a volunteer on the wetland restoration project, and he agrees with Bunch and Muller. "There was a lot of neighborhood elbow grease in the process, and considerable and important contributions from ODU graduate and undergraduate students in the biology department," he said. "I am very impressed with the work the entire group has done. The reconfigured, replanted, rejuvenated shoreline is simply wonderful."

Added Du Bois, "It's a great success story for our partners - Lafayette Wetlands Partnership, Elizabeth River Project, Chesapeake Bay Foundation, Highland Park Civic League, ODU biology graduate students and undergraduate Marine Biology Student Association, local schools, citizens, everyone."

As for Egerton, Semcheski and Muller, they've continued to work with Du Bois on wetland restoration elsewhere in Norfolk.

They are also active in maintaining a citizen-based environmental monitoring network: Eyes on the River (see Facebook page of that name). This effort started as a way for people who live on the Lafayette River to report harmful algal blooms to ODU's Phytoplankton Analysis Laboratory, but has grown into a much larger monitoring network with more than 100 members. Residents are able to report all aspects of river condition and health, including flooding, pollution, fishing reports and restoration efforts.

(Photos by Kevin Du Bois, Chuck Thomas and Jim Raper)