VIRGINIA BEACH – On a recent day in March, Todd Barnes — and Cotton, an 8-year-old Chesapeake Bay retreiver — gave a boat tour of the waters near Barnes’ home in Sigma. Barnes is the author of a memoir of growing up in and around Back Bay, a lifelong outdoorsman, fisherman, trapper, the son of a farming family. Above, he noticed something in flight.
“There’s an eagle with a fish,” he said.
He served in the Army, lived away for a while. He could have gone anywhere, really. Of course, this is home.
“It’s too much pull,” Barnes said.
“It’s part of your D.N.A.,” he added a moment later.
He feels obligated to help the bay because he remembers it as it was. He’s the longtime president of the Back Bay Restoration Foundation, which, after a few years of little activity, was reborn this year due to growing concerns about issues such as recurrent flooding, sea level rise and development in the southern city. The group aims to serve as an advocate for the bay and the people who live here.
Its board includes people whose lives intersect with the bay through activities such as farming, hunting, fishing, conservation and environmental concern. Thanks to a new board member, it also has funding in place to back its renewed efforts, money enough to hire a former manager of the Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge as the non-profit’s executive director and pay for legal support.
This is not to imply the foundation does not need donors. Barnes said donors and new members are welcome. Initially, as it rebuilds, the group will focus on water quality testing, as it has done before. Long term goals are many, but Barnes offers the gist: “Stand up for the bay whenever it needs it.”
According to board members and the new executive director, the bay needs it.
“The mission is still to provide conservation within the two southern watersheds, focusing on Back Bay,” said Jared Brandwein, the new executive director of the group and a former manager of Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge. “That concern now is compounded by sea level rise and land subsidence. … Compounding all of that, Back Bay is unique because it’s a large wind-tidal system.”
Flooding in and around the bay often is driven by winds from the south, which push water into the bay. Conditions here are different than the conditions that contribute to flooding in the northern city, where much of the suburban development is located.
Brandwein said the group can advocate for policy, such as reforesting efforts championed recently by City Councilmember Barbara Henley, a Pungo farmer who represents the Princess Anne District.
And Brandwein said the group can advocate for a range of solutions that help strengthen the bay as a resource and as an area that is home to people who have concerns about its quality. Development in formerly open areas, such as within the transition area between suburban northern areas of Virginia Beach and rural communities in the south, are part of that concern.
The group has opposed a potential federal permit for a pumping system at Ashville Park, and it is asking questions about downstream effects from efforts to alleviate flooding in a neighborhood built with an inadequate drainage system by its initial developer. The city took responsibility for the system, and it has been working to fix it through a cost-participation agreement with the current developer that was reached this past year. There are concerns about proposed development, too.
Water quality testing will help the group develop data to explore concerns people here have about issues such as discharge from developments that are built, getting bigger or may be attempted in areas known to flood.
“It’s not just about water quantity,” Brandwein said. “I want to focus on water quality. What about all the people who were living there before the transition area? What about those people?”
“It starts with water quality,” Barnes added.
In January, the foundation officially hired Brandwein as its executive director and brought in three new board members, and it released a statement billing itself as “an awakened watchdog and defender of Virginia Beach’s Southern Watershed.” It has since added two more board members.
Among the new board members is Molly Brown, a Sandbridge resident whose work includes decades of service with Friends of Back Bay. Brown and the friends group helped secure more than $24 million of funding over two decades that doubled the size of the refuge, including some land that would have been developed, providing buffers and helping important building blocks of the ecosystem such as submerged aquatic vegetation.
Her work with the foundation now offers opportunities to address issues and learn about the challenges facing the bay.
“We’re kind of in discovery mode,” she said. “We’re trying to see the whole picture of what it could be, not at just one project. That takes time.”
Brandwein said he has been involved with the foundation since the 1980s, though not as a member. He served from 1984 to 1988 as a refuge manager trainee at Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge, and then served from 2003 to 2012 as the refuge manager. When he came back to the refuge, the foundation had matured.
“I had a lot of involvement with them, and, by that time, they had developed,” Brandwein said, adding that he worked with the non-profit on cooperative projects. However, federal agencies and officials are limited in what they can do when challenges arise. That happened in the 2000s, and Brandwein, among others, learned what outside groups could do with dedication and persistence.
“Friends of Back Bay and Back Bay Restoration Foundation sued to stop a marina,” Brandwein said.
Aided by the Southern Environmental Law Center, the groups in 2009 sued over a permit issued by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers that would have allowed a marina with 76 slips to be built on tributaries of the bay – concentrating boat traffic in a shallow, sensitive area near the refuge and an “aquatic resource of national importance,” as an attorney for the groups put it.
“We were pretty amazed the corps issued the permit in the first place,” Barnes told The Virginian-Pilot at the time.
The suit, which claimed the project endangered the bay and violated the federal Clean Water Act, failed initially, but the groups appealed the decision. And they won.
“That was quite a victory,” Brown said, noting that they called Brandwein, who had left the refuge, after the 2012 appeal was decided, to let him know the good news.
“That marina would be in now if it wasn’t for their persistence,” Brandwein said.
Last year, Brandwein said he got a call from Mark Johnson, whom he recalled befriending through the marina fight. Johnson is among the new board members for the foundation.
“He really cares about the bay, and last summer he really became concerned about submerged aquatic vegetation,” Brandwein said.
So they kept talking, and then Johnson’s concerns grew about drainage issues and pumping at Ashville Park to increase capacity in the stormwater system there. That became part of the conversation, too.
Late last year, Johnson found a donor who agreed to provide backing for a reestablished foundation. Johnson said his concerns had been growing for a while.
In an interview, Johnson, who lives on the bay and commercially crabs part time, saw an example of the bay’s decline when he couldn’t find any crabs to sell for Independence Day. He has also experienced flooding, and he started going to city meetings about issues such as sea level rise, a major focus of Virginia Beach’s approach to flooding and stormwater issues and the subject of a major report. He brought up concerns, but he felt dismissed.
A major concern was upstream development – the impact of projects such as Ashville Park and the stormwater solutions to get water out of the neighborhood upon neighbors. He’s concerned about impact upon wildlife, the decline of the aquatic vegetation that had come back for a while, the lack of lotus this year, the overall affect of stormwater coming into the bay.
“A lot of this stuff can be mythical or mystical to people who don’t experience the bay every day,” he said.
As the foundation reestablishes itself, it has already begun its watchdog work by instituting water testing that can be compared to government data.
“That will help us keep tabs on the health of the bay,” Brandwein said.
And Brown said the group can amplify concerns in the community. “Their voices are going to be heard, and maybe – just maybe – solutions will be found,” she said.
The foundation seeks donors and members as it rebuilds. Learn more by following the group on Facebook by searching @backbayrestorationfoundation.
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