The nearly 350-mile-long James River is among the longest rivers in the Chesapeake Bay region, flowing from the Appalachian Mountains to the Bay. Flowing through a diversity of habitats, industries, and communities, the James River perfectly demonstrates how it takes a village of funders, technical service providers, and on-the-ground restoration professionals to manage this precious resource. The Virginia Environmental Endowment (VEE), in collaboration with Chesapeake Conservancy and The Commons, created a digital Story Map to highlight how investments by VEE’s James River Water Quality Improvement Program (JRWQIP) have achieved improvements in water quality along the River.
History of the James River Water Quality Improvement Program
The JRWQIP is funded by a $15.595 million grant program designed to accelerate and advance water quality improvements for the James River. Funding for the program, which began in 2018, was made possible by the mitigation package negotiated by the Commonwealth of Virginia that resulted from the permitting of the Surry-Skiffes electrical power line river crossing near Jamestown, VA. Now in its fourth year of funding, initial investments rooted throughout the watershed have begun to deliver measurable results to meet the water quality improvement targets of the program.
Assessing Investment Options: Restoration Planner
Working with restoration professionals and local watershed organizations, VEE has awarded thirteen grants intended to implement best management practices to reduce pollutants entering the James River, such as nitrogen, phosphorus, and total suspended solids. To inform VEE’s grant program and target smart investment, the Chesapeake Conservancy’s Conservation Innovation Center (CIC) developed a “Restoration Planner” application to support planning and evaluation of restoration projects. With this tool, VEE can make a bigger impact on improving water quality. The Restoration Planner leverages the CIC’s high-resolution land cover and flow path data to identify and prioritize high-impact, cost-effective projects that maximize water quality benefits for the James River watershed.
“The Restoration Planner provides VEE and its grant applicants with information about where conservation and restoration projects are likely to produce the greatest water quality benefits,” said Chesapeake Conservancy’s Geospatial Technology Manager Emily Mills. “Its high-resolution data enables grantees to practice ‘precision conservation,’ implementing the right practices at the right scale to the right places and at the right time. Precision conservation means having a greater impact with investments of valuable resources–time and money.”
The Restoration Planner provides a Google Maps-like interface where users can explore a wealth of data layers. They can zoom in to a specific restoration opportunity area (ROA) or parcel, and at the click of a button access information about that project such as its potential for reducing runoff and erosion. Users can also sort and filter opportunities based on criteria of interest within their geographies, helping to refine their search for high-quality projects in their communities.
Tracking Restoration Impacts: FieldDoc
VEE standardizes tracking and reporting of their investments so that they can see a 10,000 foot view of the investments they have made without losing the high resolution on localized work. All JRWQIP grantees track the details and impacts of their projects using FieldDoc. Each grantee indicates where they installed their best management practices (BMP), the extent of each installation project, and models the impact of the installation of the BMP on improving water quality. Thanks to the standardization required by the use of FieldDoc, all of the individual work rolls up to aggregate at a program-wide level to demonstrate the collective impact the work has had on improving water quality thanks to VEE’s investment decisions.
VEE’s use of FieldDoc to document the implementation of every conservation practice that counts towards JRWQIP goals is truly an innovative approach. Together VEE, The Commons, The Conservancy, and the restoration practitioners working tirelessly to improve water quality have set a new bar for transparency when it comes to sharing exactly where restoration is happening and the value it provides to the people living in the James River Watershed. The Commons is thrilled to support this effort and be at the intersection of where software can help play an active role in getting these management practices on the ground and quantified.
The VEE program officers identified core metrics and practices relevant to their work. Stakeholders enter their information autonomously within FieldDoc to track progress towards meeting target goals within the project and programmatically. To achieve this, users create a project, select their restoration practices from a curated list of VEE approved practice types and delineate both the location and extent of the practice using geo-spatial drawing tools. The system uses Chesapeake Bay Watershed Model derived algorithms to estimate the expected pollutant reductions of total nitrogen, total phosphorus, and total suspended solids resulting from installation of the work. Grantees can return to the project to report progress towards additional targets such as number of trees planted or miles of fence constructed. All of the individual practice and project progress aggregates at the program level and provides VEE with a wealth of analytical data to explore within FieldDoc or for export.
Aggregating Results for Users: StoryMap
All of these software tools empower the stakeholders to better manage, track, and report their work. The tools provide important insight and information at the project and programmatic level as well as sharing critical information to the general public and leadership beyond direct participants in the work. To best share the outcomes of these investments, the Chesapeake Conservancy’s Conservation Innovation Center, produced a StoryMap. This digital product compiles the core components of this program into a visual narrative that highlights the achievements made by grantees on the ground and in the water. For example, the StoryMap showcases new riparian buffers, implementation of agricultural pollution reduction practices, development of living shorelines, installation of stream restoration projects, and additional investments in the Jamestown region. Concurrent with showcasing these individual projects, the StoryMap also includes a FieldDoc powered dashboard so that viewers can not only find these projects on a map but also assess both the project and program-level impacts the investments have made on improving water quality.
“We are very pleased to showcase the improvements made thus far to the James River by our 13 grantees,” said VEE’s Executive Director Joseph Maroon. “Together, through efforts such as streamside buffer plantings, stream restoration projects, living shorelines, septic system upgrades and animal waste storage the grantees have reduced nitrogen pollution to the River by 319,558 pounds a year, phosphorus by 26,640 pounds per year and overall suspended sediment by over 7 million pounds. We hope this new StoryMap will help interested persons and organizations envision the totality of efforts while inspiring other partnerships and similar efforts in the James and throughout the region.”
This technologically advanced approach and resulting grant-funded projects complement Envision the James, an initiative Chesapeake Conservancy conducted along with partners such as the James River Association and National Geographic which specifically identified public demand for water quality restoration, recreational opportunities and wildlife habitat conservation.