Transforming Lawns for a Healthy James River

Opportunities for Lynchburg Homeowners to Lead in Water Conservation Efforts

What do Lynchburg lawns have to do with waterways from Blackwater Creek to the iconic Chesapeake Bay?

How we manage our yards isn’t just for show. It affects animals from the smallest damselfly to the trophy smallmouth bass in our local waters and impacts wildlife downstream to the Chesapeake Bay. Ramifications ripple out to the benefits we receive, like clean drinking water and our opportunity to paddle, fish, and enjoy our rivers. In fact, lawns and water quality are so intertwined that nonprofit and government programs might help you cover the costs of transforming soggy, poor turfgrass into native plant gardens or bare riverbanks into forests.

Pollution from cities and farms has damaged local streams into the James River and beyond for decades. The Chesapeake Bay has nearly become a “dead waterway,” with aquatic life and fish drastically disappearing from its waters. In 2010, the Environmental Protection Agency devised a plan to reverse this course by setting goals for Virginia to reduce pollution by 2025.

This is where homeowners and their backyards come in. Picture those “dead” areas in your lawn that won’t grow turfgrass, bare dirt at new building sites, or water rushing down driveways to stormwater drains.

Bare soil from new building sites and poor lawns has become the leading cause of pollution in the James River. Sediment wreaks havoc: it smothers river bottom habitats, elevates water temperatures, and clouds water, which kills underwater plants.

The other primary water pollutants—excess nutrients, nitrogen, and phosphorus—come from agricultural fields and overly fertilized lawns. Nutrients foster problematic algae blooms that create oxygen “dead zones” that suffocate aquatic life and lead to fish kills. 

The good news is that homeowners can reduce runoff in several ways. Replacing lawns, especially those with poor cover or near streams, with lush native gardens, preserves water quality—root systems act as a shield, grabbing pollutants, sediment, and nutrients before they enter water sources.
These gardens are carefully designed to absorb excess nutrients, hold soil in place, and create critical wildlife habitat. They require no fertilizers or chemicals, further reducing nutrient pollution.

Recently, City of Lynchburg and Campbell and Amherst County homeowners became eligible for a state program, the Virginia Conservation Assistance Program (VCAP). This program helps cover costs for pollution-reduction projects, like rain gardens, conservation landscaping, and permeable pavements. 

“The projects I want to see installed are the ones that solve water issues for individuals. Whether they have erosion and soil loss on their property, standing water issues, or need to contain water for raised beds—the right project for the location and landowner are the priority,” says Blair Blanchette, VCAP Coordinator. 

Concrete exacerbates polluted runoff as water picks up other pollutants like bacteria and pesticides, then flushes straight to local creeks. Projects that slow water runoff, such as rainwater harvesting or dry wells, can keep lawns and gardens healthy and provide water during dry spells while significantly reducing polluted runoff.

The James River Association’s Buffer Program works with landowners in the James River watershed to plant forested areas along creeks or streams called buffers. Buffers stop pollution as gardens do while building cooler, clearer, more stable streams, providing habitat for sensitive species like herons and brook trout.

“Everyone can have an impact. Trees are part of the answer, and anyone, especially those with open streamside land, can grow trees to help clean our water,” says Anne Marie Roberts, Senior Restoration Field Manager for the James River Association.

Through a technical modeling program, Roberts can see precisely how much a buffer reduces pollutants like sediment and excess nutrients. Through such programs as these and continued community investment, the James River can return to total health. Luckily for many of us,
it may start with a lush forest or a beautiful garden.

WHERE TO BEGIN

Virginia Conservation Assistance Program (VCAP)

Government program managed by Soil and Water Conservation Districts (SWCD) aims to help residential homeowners reduce urban stormwater runoff.

Who: Homeowners, businesses, schools, places of worship, and community centers in Lynchburg, Amherst, and Campbell counties (R. E. Lee District) or Bedford County (Peaks of Otter District)

What: Design, prepare, and install “best management practices,” including conservation landscaping, impermeable surface removal, permeable pavement, green roofs, rainwater harvesting, and more. Up to 80% of project cost reimbursed. 

Get Started: Visit Releeconservation.com or Poswcd.org 

The James River Buffer Program (JRBP)

The James River Association and the Chesapeake Bay Foundation provide technical and financial support for landowners to create forest buffers along stream banks.

Who: Landowners in the James River watershed with a creek, stream, or river frontage 

What: Design, prepare, install, and provide three years of maintenance support to restore forested buffers. 100% project cost provided.

Results: Since its launch in 2019 and with support from Department of Forestry, 1,084 acres of buffers installed across the James River watershed, including 358,331 native trees.

Get Started: Visit jamesriverbuffers.org 

Conservation Easements

The Central Virginia Land Conservancy works with landowners to save the farms, forests, waterways, and rural landscapes that make Virginia beautiful. Land conservation easements save land through voluntary, permanent agreements that outline how land can be used. 

Who: Landowners in Amherst, Appomattox, Bedford, Buckingham, Campbell, and Nelson counties and Lynchburg

What: Permanent agreements to protect land from intense development. Tax credits and deductions based on the reduced land value.

Results: 5,900 acres protected 

Get Started: Visit www.cvalc.org

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