Environment of the Study Area
The three counties of the Lower Chickahominy watershed boast some of the most valuable and unique natural resources in Virginia. Healthy streams run through forested lands and open spaces that are home to the native flora and fauna of the tidal fresh zone of coastal Virginia.
The land cover in the study area is characteristic of a rural area experiencing suburban development pressure in Virginia's coastal plain. The majority of land in the study area is covered by small and large blocks of forest. The presence of active agriculture across the landscape is reflected in land areas classified as pasture or cropland. Residential and business development is reflected in impervious, turf/grass, and disturbed land areas.
What is the riparian zone?
Riparian zones are the transitional areas between land and water, including the margins of streams, rivers, lakes, and wetlands. They are rich in biodiversity and play an important role in protecting water quality and stream ecosystem health. Riparian zones containing a variety of native woody and herbaceous plant species provide habitat and food for aquatic organisms, as well as terrestrial animals. Root structure in a healthy, dense mix of riparian vegetation fortifies streambanks, which helps control erosion caused by extreme flow velocities and flooding. Riparian vegetation functions as a large sponge that reduces overland surface flow and absorbs pollutants caught up in stormwater runoff. In addition, tree canopy in riparian zones provides shade, which helps maintain cooler water temperatures and higher dissolved oxygen levels.
The entire three-county study area covers approximately 608 square miles of land and water. Water in rivers and streams comprises 12.6% of the study area. The largest component of land cover is forest (blocks of tree cover great than 1 acre) or trees (blocks of tree cover less than 1 acre); a total of 52.9% of the entire study area, or 60.4% of the land area, is covered by trees or forest. Impervious cover is approximately 4.0% of the study area.
Virginia's Healthy Waters initiative is a collaborative program between state agencies and the VCU Center for Environmental Studies. The program uses ecological stream assessments and water quality data to classify streams, creeks, and rivers across Virginia according to their degree of health. The goal of the program is to identify healthy streams and encourage the protection of stream health before pollution or other human impacts degrade it. In determining stream health, scientists and data analysts consider the following elements:
- Native species - a high number of native species and a broad diversity of species
- Fish species - ideally include native predators, migratory species, a low incidence of parasites or disease among the population, and few generalist species tolerant of degraded water quality
- Macroinvertebrate species - (worms, insects, mollusks, crayfish, etc.) including native predators, few generalist species who are tolerant of degraded water quality
- Riparian zone - intact forested buffers in the riparian zone that filter runoff
- In-stream habitat - including vegetation, rocks, fallen logs, etc. that provide resting and hiding places for wildlife
The Lower Chickahominy study area is home 10 streams and creeks that have been identified as "healthy waters" by the program. One of these has been recognized as an "outstanding" water meaning it is estimated to be in the top 20% of waters with high ecological health included in the program. 17 17waterbodies have been identified as restoration candidates meaning they fall in the middle 20% of streams analyzed in the program. These restoration candidates have suffered some ecological degradation but maintain some aspects of ecological health so that they present as strong candidates for restoration efforts.
HEALTHY WATERS (Web Mapping Application)
Wildlife and Habitat
The Lower Chickahominy study area has a variety of habitats for both common and rare native wildlife, including endangered species. Bald eagles and peregrine falcons roam the sky while prehistoric sturgeon glide through the water. This naturally diverse and unique wildlife population exists because of the valuable habitats that span the landscape and waterways of the Lower Chickahominy.
To better understand how valuable ecological areas are spread across Virginia, the Virginia Coastal Zone Management Program worked with state resource agencies to create a model data set for use as a mapping tool called the Virginia Ecological Value Assessment, or VEVA. The collaboration included scientists and data analysts from the Virginia Departments of Conservation and Recreation Division of Natural Heritage, Game and Inland Fisheries, and Environmental Quality as well as the VCU Center for Environmental Studies and the VIMS Center for Coastal Resources Management. The VEVA combines scientific data and best professional judgment to rank land- and water-based areas for their ecological value. Areas in the VEVA are ranked 1-5 based on their ecological value and conservation priority; a score of 5 is highest, also referred to as “Outstanding.” The Lower Chickahominy study area has a greater percentage of its land and water area recognized in the VEVA as having either Outstanding or Very High ecological value compared to the entire Coastal Zone of Virginia; 39% compared to 34%. Therefore, the three counties of the Lower Chickahominy represent a concentration of ecologically valuable land and water habitat.
Many rare species of plants and animals call the Lower Chickahominy home. During the first year of this project, funding was provided to the Virginia Departments of Conservation and Recreation Division of Natural Heritage, Game and Inland Fisheries, and Environmental Quality to update species and natural communities data. Much of the data gathered by state resource agency staff is sensitive and not publicly accessible in detail since it describes the location of rare and endangered species. In the three counties of the Lower Chickahominy area, there are species of global, national, and state significance due to the threat of endangerment. Below you will find a few highlights from cataloged species data in the study area.
One report developed as part of the data update during the first year of the project is publicly available and can be downloaded here:
If you would like to learn more about wildlife in Lower Chickahominy and across Virginia, see:
Rare Species of Plants & Animals of the Lower Chickahominy
This project, Task # 93.01 was funded by the Virginia Coastal Zone Management Program led by the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality through Grant FY18 #NA18NOS4190152 of the US Department of Commerce, National Oceanic, and Atmospheric Administration, under the Coastal Zone Management Act of 1972, as amended. The views expressed herein are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the US Department of Commerce, NOAA, or any of its sub-agencies.