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Posted 10/11/2013

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By Patrick Bloodgood
Norfolk District Public Affairs Office

NORFOLK – Contractors for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers are moving mountains of fossil oyster shell from Craney Island in Portsmouth, Va., to build 16 acres of sanctuary reefs in Elizabeth River and some of its tributaries.

Construction began Oct. 7 on the first reef, located in Portsmouth’s Hoffler Creek.

Mined from the James River, 39,000 cubic yards of shell are headed to five new reefs, which are  part of the environmental mitigation for the impact of the Craney Island Eastward Expansion project.

“This project is a win for the country, Corps, the commonwealth and the community,” said Col. Paul Olsen, Norfolk District commander. “Not only is this project vital to the future of the port, but the restoration of oyster habitat is vital to the future and health of the Chesapeake Bay.”

The mitigation effort benefits the commonwealth in two ways: experts forecast an improvement in the Elizabeth River’s ecosystem and a positive economic impact on the local, state and national economies.
According to the Virginia Port Authority, the eastward expansion will generate more than 54,000 jobs with wages of $1.7 billion annually.

“Without the mitigation program, the project would have never been permitted,” said Joe Harris, Virginia Port Authority spokesperson. “That would equate to a loss in $6 billion of economic impact through jobs creation, tax revenue to the state, as well as considerable savings to the federal government, which won’t have to invest dollars into highway infrastructure.”

The reef-building incorporates lessons learned from the Norfolk District’s decade of experience in its oyster restoration program, which includes the 85-acre reef in the Great Wicomico River and 58 acres of reefs in the Lynnhaven River -- the largest oyster restoration efforts constructed in Virginia waters.

“Our reefs in both the Great Wicomico and Lynnhaven Rivers are very successful, with an estimated abundance of 16 million oysters on our Lynnhaven sanctuary reefs alone,” said Susan Conner, chief of the planning environmental section. “These oysters are providing spat, which move within each tributary and contribute to a long-term sustainable oyster population in the Chesapeake Bay.”

And the future looks promising.

Norfolk District scientists and environmental engineers, armed with successes and lessons learned from constructing Virginia’s largest oyster reefs, recently won approval from Corps senior leaders in Washington to complete the feasibility phase of the Lynnhaven Ecosystem Restoration Project, a $34.4 million comprehensive aquatic ecosystem restoration plan."

The Lynnhaven effort calls for the Norfolk District, in partnership with the City of Virginia Beach, to restore 94 acres of submerged aquatic vegetation, 38 acres for wetlands, 22 acres for the reintroduction of bay scallops and 31.5 acres of reef habitat.

“It’s an unprecedented effort for Virginia,” said Greg Steele, chief of the district’s planning branch. “This is the Norfolk District’s largest aquatic ecosystem restoration.  

For the district commander, the two projects – oysters in the Elizabeth River to ecosystem restoration in the Lynnhaven River – are about building on the district’s proven strengths, building projects that embody the Corps’ Environmental Operating Principles and about getting results. 

“As a federal engineer, I get enormous pleasure partnering with Virginia Port Authority and the Commonwealth of Virginia,” Olsen said. “When it comes to projects of this scale, it is essential that we balance our passion to build our future port with our responsibility to sustain our aquatic resources. Nowhere else is that more clear than right here in Hampton Roads, where oysters will play a huge role. That is why I’m thrilled to be moving mountains of shell to where they can make a difference.”

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