As Virginia commemorates the 50th anniversary of the Virginia Scenic Rivers Act, Betty McGehee remembers decades of environmental advocacy work by her mother, Minnie Lee McGehee, who was dedicated to protecting the Rivanna River and promoting recreation on the waterway. Spurred by news of the General Assembly’s passage of the Virginia Scenic Rivers Act in 1970, which established an ongoing program to identify and promote preservation of the state’s most visually outstanding waterways, Minnie Lee McGehee led grassroots efforts to designate the Rivanna as the state’s first scenic river. She gathered support from Albemarle residents, county officials and a state House representative.

Minnie Lee McGehee. Credit: Credit: The McGehee Family Credit: Credit: The McGehee Family

The younger McGehee describes her mother, regarded for many contributions to area civic life, as a capable writer, self-taught historian and wife who “worked in the home.” Her mother’s interest in the Rivanna coincided with the nation’s growing environmentalism movement in the late 1960s, before state and local conservationists made substantial investments in protecting the Rivanna and its watershed, which includes the city of Charlottesville and portions of Albemarle, Fluvanna, Greene, Louisa, Orange and Nelson counties. “Mom didn’t have any group behind her, she just did it … for the love of the river,” Betty McGehee said. Since the work of Minnie Lee McGehee began, other Virginia activists have demonstrated their love and stewardship of the state’s waterways by petitioning for more designations. To date, Virginia has 36 scenic rivers or sections of rivers totaling 905 miles. Six of them were designated on July 1 with General Assembly approval:

  1. The Clinch River in Tazewell and Russell counties 36.8 miles*
  2. Grays Creek in Surry County 6 miles
  3. The James River in Albemarle, Buckingham and Fluvanna counties 20 miles*
  4. The Maury River in Rockbridge County 19.25 miles
  5. The Pound River in Wise and Dickenson counties 17 miles
  6. The Staunton (Roanoke) River in Charlotte and Halifax counties 11.5 miles*

*Other sections of these rivers were designated in previous years. The over 110 new river miles represent the most designated in a single year, and the greatest number of individual segments. The strength of the Scenic Rivers program is that it relies on grassroots support for recommendation of waterways, which are then evaluated under state criteria for scenic, natural and historic merit, said Julie Buchanan, spokesperson for the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation. “This is a grassroots program that is really led by local people who care about these rivers and the community, and they are the ones who bring these designations to the legislature,” Buchanan said. Scenic rivers designations can also be leveraged by communities to promote ecotourism, said Justin Doyle, a conservation manager for the James River Association. The organization partnered with Albemarle, Scottsville and Buckingham officials and activists to obtain scenic rivers status in July for a stretch of the James from Warren Ferry to the bridge connecting Bremo Bluff in Fluvanna to New Canton in Buckingham. “From the James River Association’s point of view, our involvement in championing this stretch of scenic river is really to elevate it as a resource for the region to leverage for economic development,” Doyle said. “Communities can benefit from people hearing about the 20-mile stretch of scenic river and being motivated to explore it by either land or watercraft.” State officials learned early on that the program would not work without community buy-in, said Lynn Crump, state scenic resources coordinator. At first, the program was not well received by Virginia localities, who feared government encroachment on private riverside lands. Initially, the state act was modeled after the National Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, which requires federal land management within a quarter mile on either side of a nationally designated waterway. And a state report recommended rivers for state designation, without first soliciting community input. “There are anecdotal stories of sheriffs taking our guys out of the back door because [community] audiences were so irate,” Crump said. “They revamped it into a program of not us telling you to designate this river, but you telling us what rivers should be considered for designation, and it’s pretty much held that way.”

River stewards

People go tubing on the Rivanna River near Free Bridge. On July 1, a portion of the James River in Buckingham, Fluvanna and Albemarle counties joined the Rivanna in gaining a Virginia Scenic Rivers designation. The Virginia Scenic Rivers Act turned 50 years old in 2020. Credit: Credit: Mike Kropf/Collectbritain Credit: Credit: Mike Kropf/Collectbritain

Currently, the act’s only mandate is no new dams can be built on state scenic rivers without approval from the General Assembly. Though the act doesn’t have many legislative teeth, it also promotes river preservation by granting high priority to scenic rivers in applications for state grants to fund river health initiatives. For more than 30 years, the Historic Falls of the James River, Catoctin Creek and Goose Creek scenic sections have had citizen advisory committees with a say in local planning decisions that could impact the scenic statuses of the rivers. The Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation advises conservation groups across the state, including the Rivanna Conservation Alliance, on the protection of scenic rivers. Founded as the Rivanna Conservation Society in 1990, with a focus on river restoration, the group changed its name when it merged with StreamWatch in 2016 to reflect an expanded mission of providing scientifically rigorous water quality monitoring. The RCA notes the Rivanna’s scenic designation on applications for grants to fund conservation efforts, including the start of statistical analyses of water quality to provide a long-term picture of changes in bacteria and sediment levels in the watershed. Albemarle partially funds the RCA’s water quality monitoring efforts. County code requires that 100-foot vegetative buffers be maintained alongside much of the waterway and puts limits on human activities within these buffers. But despite joint efforts from the county and conservation organizations, water quality is a persistent issue in parts of the watershed due to storm water runoff from concrete surfaces that can’t absorb excess water, animal waste from livestock and aging sewer infrastructure, said Lisa Wittenborn, RCA executive director. High bacteria levels in 5.28 miles of the Rivanna’s main stem and several of its tributaries have caused these portions of the waterway to not meet state water quality standards. “I would not say that the river is pristine. It has some issues, but it’s pretty good,” Wittenborn says. “[Part of] the Rivanna runs along the city of Charlottesville, the portion of the river that is more urban is experiencing a lot of run off related problems.”

Flowing onward

Rivanna’s scenic designation may have helped the RCA secure National Fish and Wildlife Foundation funding for drone surveys of parts of the watershed impaired by high bacteria levels. The footage will be used by stakeholders to identify where restoration work is most needed, and the Rivanna’s designation could factor into securing more funding for the top priority restoration projects, Wittenborn said. The JRA plans to conduct survey work to expand scenic rivers designation to the confluence of the James and Rivanna rivers in Columbia. Ongoing work by activists to expand scenic rivers designations speaks to the continued importance of local involvement in preservation, Crump said. “Through this program, communities are demonstrating the pride they have in their rivers,” she said. This article was updated on June 21, 2020, with new statistics from the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation on the number of scenic rivers and miles covered.