Lafayette River Restoration


Oyster reef construction on Virginia's Lafayette River, done in partnership with the Elizabeth River Project.

Elizabeth River Project

In 2018, the Lafayette became the first river in Virginia to meet oyster habitat restoration goals set for 10 tributaries across the Bay—a remarkable comeback for this urban river.

Since 2009, CBF and partners have greatly stepped up efforts to resuscitate the Lafayette River in Norfolk, Virginia. It is among the earliest settled, most urbanized rivers in the Bay watershed and has suffered from many typical problems: too much runoff, too many algal blooms, too much bacteria, and too little oxygen, all of which can stress or kill oysters and other Bay creatures.

Fortunately, Lafayette River oyster habitat is making a comeback thanks to restoration work. It is all starting to add up.

  • Targeted local restoration projects include planting rain gardens, fixing leaky sewer lines, reducing runoff from homes, and picking up pet waste.
  • Restoration efforts have revitalized 80 acres of oyster reefs on the Lafayette. These reefs are amazing habitat for crabs and other critters and attract game fish such as striped bass and speckled trout.
  • Regular biological surveys on the Lafayette River now find a rich diversity of aquatic life, including dolphins, sea horses, blue crabs, and black sea bass.
  • As bacteria levels drop, the river is also becoming safer for swimming and paddling. In 2016, Virginia's Department of Environmental Quality removed the Lafayette from the state's list of waterways where high bacteria levels threaten recreation. 

This progress is thanks to generous grant funding and a collaborative effort among many partners, including CBF and the Elizabeth River Project (ERP), the City of Norfolk, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Restore America's Estuaries, the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, the Army Corps of Engineers, Lafayette Wetlands Partnership, Christopher Newport University, Hampton Roads Sanitation District, the Rotary Club of Norfolk, Virginia Marine Resources Commission, and Virginia Institute of Marine Science.

Growing the Lafayette's Oyster Reefs

CBF has planted about 470 million spat-on-shell oysters on these reefs in the last decade. ERP has constructed the bases for these 12 new oyster reefs using shell and alternative materials, including crushed concrete. These restored reefs total 32 acres. When combined with 48 acres of existing "historic reefs" the Lafayette has reached its 80-acre target for oyster habitat.

Local restaurants and volunteers play a crucial role by providing empty oyster shells for restoration work through CBF's oyster shell recycling program. Waterfront homeowners have also made a real difference by growing oysters off docks through CBF's oyster gardening program. Many of the oysters grown by CBF volunteers have been planted on sanctuary reefs in the Lafayette.

The Chesapeake Bay Foundation also placed about 1,500 reef balls in the Lafayette since 2010. These large hollow concrete domes build up three-dimensional structure quickly, jump-starting a whole new ecosystem. They are dotted with big holes, creating hiding places for aquatic life and plenty of area for oysters to latch on to. A recent CBF survey found more than 2,000 oysters on average growing on a single 18-inch-diameter reef ball.

This progress in revitalizing Norfolk's Lafayette River shows just what can be done when everyone pitches in.

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Do you enjoy working with others to help clean the Chesapeake Bay? Do you have a few hours to spare? Whether growing oysters, planting trees, or helping in our offices, there are plenty of ways you can contribute.

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