Category Archives: Aquatic Life

Rivanna: An Icon in Virginia History

The Rivanna River, currently a focal point of outdoor recreation, has long stood as an important part of Virginia’s history. It has held economic and military significance throughout time and has seen many alterations.

Before European settlers arrived in Virginia, the Monacan Indian tribe inhabited the area around the river. The Monacan people cleared forests along the riverbank for agricultural purposes, using shells and fish bones as fertilizer. After suffering repeated attacks from the Iroquois Indians, the Monacans left the banks of the Rivanna and were consequently gone before the English arrived.

As the English colonists began to take over the area, even more woodland was cut down in order to provide land for tobacco farming and later wheat. The river was initially called the “River Anna” after Queen Anne, later shortened to its current name.

Thomas Jefferson is often associated with the river, as he grew up nearby and consequently had a sustained interest in it. He conducted a study of the river in 1763 and later ordered that it be cleared and made suitable for transport, which would lead to its importance for travel during the American Revolutionary War. Bridges as well as a military depot and arsenal were built along the river. The military arsenal was captured by the British and destroyed during the war.

After the revolution, the Rivanna Navigation Company formed in order to make the river more navigable, building dams and locks all along it. The remnants of these dams can be seen today and add to the strong sense of history still present on the river.

As farming declined in Albemarle County, partly as a result of men leaving to fight in the world wars, the land that was once cleared along the Rivanna River returned to forested area, restoring some of the scenic area that predated human manipulation. Currently, forests surround 72.2% of the river. Several parks have been designated along the river, including Darden Towe Park, Pen Park, and Riverview Park.

In 1990, the Rivanna Conservation Society formed with the goal “to safeguard the ecological, recreational, historical, cultural, and scenic resources of the Rivanna River and its tributaries.” The society also works to connect citizens with the river in a responsible and positive way.

In 2008, the Rivanna River was the first Virginia river to be declared a “Scenic River” by the state government.  The Rivanna Conservation Society was a key component in achieving this status.

The river remains an important part of the Charlottesville area and is a heavily visited and appreciated aspect of the local outdoor culture.

Unfortunately, it is also impaired in several areas due to excessive pollution. The Department of Environmental Quality is currently conducting studies to find ways to improve the water quality. As the Rivanna is an extremely iconic and important part of Virginia’s history, cleaning and preserving it are crucial actions to ensure its health and usability for future generations.

Works Cited

“About the Rivanna Watershed.” Rivanna River Basin Commission. Web. 21 Apr. 2015. <>.

“Mission and History.” Rivanna Conservation Society. Web. 21 Apr. 2015. <>.

Nolting, Lindsay. “Rivanna River History.” Cville Water. 1 Feb. 1996. Web. 21 Apr. 2015. <>.

Post by Michael Carter

The Rivanna River: Part II

Hello, my name is David McQuillen and I am a second year at the University of Virginia studying Economics.  I, along with my colleague Henry Peltz, decided to explore the Rivanna River as part of our BioGrounds research.  As my other team members have attested, the weather has been an issue.  Luckily, I was able to make a couple of visits to Riverview Park in order to see the Rivanna.

I have always been comfortable with numbers, so I decided to take a more scientific approach to seeing how the Rivanna is able to support aquatic life.  Henry provided a good background on the types of species found in and around the river, but I wanted to test the river’s health to see how it could support such a diverse ecosystem.  I used a water testing kit to accomplish this.  I was able to test for the river’s pH and Temperature, along with levels of Dissolved Oxygen, Nitrates, and Phosphates.  This data allowed me to make an evaluation of the river’s overall health.



Temperature (̊C)

Dissolved Oxygen (ppm*)

Nitrates (ppm)

Phosphates (ppm)













*ppm=parts per million

Each measurement can give information about the river’s health.

–       pH level is very important, as organisms are often suited to a certain range and can die if this fluctuates.  It is good, then, that the pH was consistent in both samples.  8 is a solid pH level; the testing kit rates it as a 3 (“Good”) out of 4 (“Excellent”).

–       Temperature change is the next statistic.  Again, consistency is highly desirable.  The temperature in the samples was a small 2 degrees Celcius; the kit rates this figure as “Excellent.”

–       Dissolved oxygen is necessary for the continuation of aquatic life.  Aquatic organisms need oxygen just as humans do.  Therefore, a high level of Oxygen is desirable in the samples.  The Rivanna did not perform too well in this test, with average ppm numbers.  These, coupled with the relatively high temperature of the water, give the Rivanna a “Fair” score.

–       Nitrogen, while a necessary nutrient for plant growth, is not desirable in excess in an aquatic ecosystem.  In bulk, it lowers Oxygen levels.  The Nitrates test was hard to read, but the two samples averaged out to just less than 5 ppm.  Again, this is a average result, and the kit gives it another “Fair” grade.

–       The final measurement performed sought to determine Phosphorous levels.  Akin to Nitrogen, Phosphorous is a key nutrient, but is harmful in heavy concentrations.  High levels of Phosphates often stem from human waste, industrial pollution, and other runoff.  The Rivanna scored well on this metric, with an “Excellent” score of 1 ppm on both samples


After examining the data, it seems that the Rivanna is a healthy river.  This is not surprising, as Charlottesville is not home to many large industrial firms that pollute.  Though there is runoff and drainage, as Henry discovered during his visit, this water has probably already been treated and is not too detrimental to the Rivanna’s underwater world.

One interesting observation of aquatic life I had was not part of the river itself.  Along the trail there was a large puddle that had formed.  This puddle had obviously been there for awhile, as it was full of tadpoles!  This was a good reminder that we can find nature in all places; puddles in cities, for example, are teeming with microscopic aquatic life.


In this case, our observations about the health of the Rivanna were corroborated with the testing kit.  Such a healthy river is good for a city like Charlottesville.  It provides safe drinking water, outstanding aesthetic benefits, and a good environment for aquatic life.  If we are to incorporate bodies of water in our future designs of cities, we must ensure that they stay healthy and do not simply become a dump for industrial waste. It is good to include water in biophilic urban design within reason, and a healthy river can be a great addition to any growing city.

Aquatic Life Update

Hello, I am Dominique Willis, and I have been researching the Dell Pond’s aquatic life with Emily Paul. After talking with Jeffrey Sitler, hydrogeologist and environmental compliance manager at UVA, Emily and I learned more about the aquatic life and general function of the Dell Pond.

First, the Dell Pond was designed as a stormwater management system. The Dell filters the water, traps sediment, and lowers the amount of runoff that flows into the Rivanna River system. The Dell accommodates 2-year storm events being able to detain up to 1,451,220 gallons of stormwater. If there is any extra runoff, there is another facility to accommodate it.  The Dell also retains stormwater runoff, allows the water to rise to its natural slope, and then slowly releases the water once it has reached a certain level. This is helpful in reducing rapid runoff, and allows sediment to settle as well.

The Dell, before and after.

Interestingly, the Dell was designed to be a native botanical garden, so 99% of the plants are native to Virginia. This leads to native species returning to this area and thriving. Additionally, the native plants are an important food source for the returning native species. Due to this project, a significant portion of the wetland forest has been restored. Also, UVA students studied the water quality before and after the Dell was built. Their findings show that the water quality is significantly better with reduced levels of phosphates and sediment and low levels of nitrate. There are three zones of the Dell: the upland Mountain zone, the intermediate Piedmont zone, and the lower Coastal Plain zone.


Although the initial purpose was to slow stormwater flows, the Dell has become a habitat for aquatic life. Jeffrey Sitler comments on the aquatic life of the Dell, “It has been stocked with fish on at least three occasions, none of which were sanctioned or directed by UVa.  In the first year of operation, some unknown group put goldfish in the pond.  A few years later, someone put in a mix of native fishes and last year someone put in a couple of Koi.  In addition to these, native minnows, snakes and turtles have been spotted.  Of course we see frogs, crayfish and other natives.”

While I preliminarily took a count of the different aquatic species of the Dell, I witnessed a turtle, ducks fighting each other, and birds roaming next to the pond. Others have said they have sighted a blue heron, geese, and a pair of mallards.



We just received the green low cost water monitoring kit and are using it to test the water of our various sites now. This will be a great opportunity to understand the implications of certain pH levels, temperature, nitrate levels, phosphate, and coliform bacteria in relation to the quantity and quality of the aquatic life in all of the bodies of water we picked as mentioned before. Stay tuned for the results we found from these samples.

Post by Dominique Willis, First-Year, Pre-Commerce

Aquatic Life Update

Hello, my name is Robert D’Agostino and I am a third year Urban and Environmental Planning Major at the University of Virginia.  For our BioGrounds project, we are studying the Aquatic Life in and around Charlottesville.  As Henry mentioned in the previous blog, the weather over the past month has restricted us in thoroughly examining and studying the aquatic areas that we chose at the beginning of the semester.  Philip Todd and I have decided to study the aquatic life of the Schuyler County Quarry.  This Quarry is an attractive spot for locals and is frequently visited during the summer months for recreational purposes.

The Alberene Soapstone Company originally owned the Schuyler County Quarry, which to this day is one of the United States largest soapstone selling companies.  Digging took place from the 1930s until 1963, when there was no more soapstone to dig for.  After shutting down, the quarries were filled with water from a natural spring in the area.  This constant flow of natural spring water keeps the water in the quarries fairly fresh.  The quarries are now used for recreational purposes; there are two quarries where people can jump from heights ranging from 10 to 80 feet.   Philip and I are interested in this body of water because we want to see if the intrusive digging that occurred over 50 years ago has had any affect on the aquatic life in this area.  We are also very interested to see these quarries have become home to any new species.

On our site visit, we plan on making several observations about the quarries and the surrounding areas to get a greater understanding of all life that inhabits this area.  We plan on observing the several different plant, tree, and animal species that inhabit this area in order to gauge the biodiversity of this region.  Since this body of water is man made, we do not expect to find large species in the actual quarry, unless some species migrated through the natural spring.  We are very interested in seeing how different plant species have grown in this region, and how these species are affected by the presence of humans during the spring and summer months.

After last meeting we have decided to not only make observations about the aquatic life and surrounding area, but we also have interest in testing the water with a green low cost water monitoring kit.  This kit would help us test for several different factors; for example, pH levels, temperature, Nitrate levels, Phosphate, and Coliform bacteria.  These samples can provide us with information about any possible pollution in these waters, and can help us explain some of the observations we make.

Post by Robert D’Agostino, Third-Year, Urban and Environmental Planning

Venturing into the Aquatic Systems around Charlottesville: The Rivanna River

Hello. My name is Henry Peltz and I a second year at the University of Virginia studying Environmental Thought and Practice, and Economics. Recently, in the last month, there were a multitude of obstacles blocking our ability to study the wildlife in aquatic settings: heavy snowfall, spring break, and lots of rain. Now, with the spring finally here, we plan to heavily watch and research the biodiversity around Charlottesville’s aquatic life.

I went to the Rivanna River to start observations of biodiversity and population surrounding the river. I was unable to take pH, nitrate, phosphorus and acidity of the river as we are awaiting our field-testing kit. After watching and observing the various parts of nature surrounding me, I discovered at least 10 different types of bushes and plant species. There was also a multitude of different types of trees (maple, tuliptree, black walnut, small white oak, etc.). What interested me was that a spider (or so I assumed) made a nest for its larva in the concaves of branches, resting in trees. There was very little, even none in some areas, garbage around and surrounding the banks of the river. The sound of birds was all around me, in various chirps and hums, indicating a strong biodiversity level of the river.


Across the water there was a tree that was barely hanging on the ground. It seemed like it could fall anytime soon, and potentially could cause a problem with the power line near it. It seems that in a few years the tree will join the other trees that have collapsed and fallen into the river to form either: a natural riverbank or a formation in the middle of the river.


What was very interesting about the river was a pipe I found feeding water into the river. There was no indication of where the water was coming from or if it was storm-water drainage. I can assume though that it wasn’t from a company population or sewage, and more likely to be storm-water drainage, as the water was clean and seemed to be relatively natural. I was surprised though that water was being fed into the river.


The area seemed to be full of biodiversity and it was easy to hear many different types of birds, see many different species of birds and smell various sprouting flowers. At the very end of the walkable trail, there was a rabbit hole in the ground that showed different types of species that exist around the river. The good health of the river is probably due to the Rivanna Conservation Society working to fix and increase the health of the river. There work includes lots of steam bank renovation and native tree planting occurring alongside the entire river. I don’t expect there to be much acidity or high ion levels in the river. It seemed, from an observation standpoint, to be generally healthy.


Post by Henry Peltz, Second-Year, Environmental Thought and Practice and Economics

Exploring the Aquatic Life in our Backyards

Hello! My name is Emily Paul and I am part of the Aquatic Team, made up of Jaclyn Garet, our grad student mentor, as well as Henry Peltz, Philip Todd, Eric Gillwald, Dominique Willis, David McQuillen, and Rob Dagostino. In our first meetings, we spent a lot of time discussing what types of aquatic life we wanted to study, which locations we would choose, and in what way we would quantify or measure our observations. There were so many ideas we had at first—looking at the endangered spinymussel, studying the shad introduced to the Rivanna, observing rivers where fishing is popular and how that impacts the environment, and researching how to introduce water back into urban landscapes—but the main problem was narrowing it down. Though we were interested in sediments, runoff, and pollution, we decided to stick with the physical aquatic life of the water near us.

The project timeline and workplan we created is keeping us on track. Right now, we are deep into our research to gather a better understanding of the aquatic bodies we decided to study. Our team divided up into groups, each with a different location on Grounds or off, in order to obtain a better picture of the aquatic life in our midst.

We have been contacting local experts in order to gather more information, sharing criteria that we all see as a common measure of the aquatic plant and animal life, and gathering as much data as possible. Locations we brainstormed were the Rivanna river, the Dell, Moore’s Creek, the Lynch River, a pond from home, Ivy Creek, the Quarry, and Mill Run. In order to record our observations, we will take extensive notes on what we see, hear, smell and more; take photographs; and conduct site visits at least every two to four weeks in order to gauge differences in time, season, and weather.

Two locations we are studying are the Quarry and the Rivanna River. Dominique and I decided to work on the Dell and observe its wildlife. The Dell was a stream daylighting project at UVA that has been considered very successful. It is located right across the street from the UVA Bookstore. We started our search for information with Bill Lucy, a planning professor who had integrated study of the Dell into one of his classes, and he directed us to Mary Hughes in the Office of the Architect and Jeffrey Sitler from Facilities Management. Mary Hughes directed us to a website that gave us more information about the design of the Dell. Next Tuesday, we are going on a tour of the Dell with Sitler, a hydrologist and Environmental Compliance Manager. He shared with us a few resources documenting the creation and progress of the Dell as background; we are excited to speak with him in person next week to see what else we can learn!

Photo from:

Post by Emily Paul, Third-Year, Urban and Environmental Planning