Love Your Watershed

Welcome to the new Love Your Watershed virtual campaign!

Hop on board and navigate your way through each section below to learn all about the Rivanna River watershed – its beauties and its struggles. Inside each section, you and your family can pick from a variety of maps, videos, and hands-on activities. And keep an eye out in the future for in-person Love Your Watershed events throughout Charlottesville, Albemarle County, and UVA.

After you complete any of the suggested activities, share how you #LoveYourWatershed!

Exploring the Rivanna Watershed

No matter where you are in the world, you are in a watershed—oftentimes you are in multiple watersheds! Watersheds aren’t confined to city, county, or state boundaries; they are defined by high and low points of elevation like mountains, hills, and valleys. When a drop of rain hits a mountain, gravity carries it to the nearest stream, it then flows to a larger stream, and then to an even larger river and eventually to the ocean!

Did you know, if you are in the Rivanna River Watershed, all the rain that falls on your property eventually goes to the Chesapeake Bay?!

Let’s take a look at how water moves to form rivers and lakes.

Paper (folded in half)
Markers (any colors work!)
Water bottle (or a bowl of water and use your fingers to flick the water)
Materials - paper, spray bottle, markers, and towel

1. Crumple the paper into a tight ball.
Crumpled ball of paper

2. Open the paper and let it sit open like a book. Pretend that the big crease in the middle is the Rivanna River.
Open crumpled paper

3. Using the side of your marker tip, trace the “ridges” of the crumpled paper. These can represent the tops of hills and mountains, like those in nearby Shenandoah National Park.
Ridges of the crumpled paper traced with a blue marker

4. Now, make it rain! Spray or flick water onto the paper and watch what happens.
Paper sprayed with water demonstrates effects of rainwater

Did you notice how the water moves downhill to form streams, rivers, and lakes? Any part of the paper that drains into the middle of your paper is part of the Rivanna River’s watershed.  And inside that watershed are many smaller watersheds - one for each of those smaller streams that appeared on your paper.

5. Try this activity again, except this time add in other colors between the ridges. Brown can represent bare soil from deforestation or construction, and green or other colors can represent pollutants such as pet waste and vehicle fluids found on roads. Watch how the water picks it up and carries it into your previously pristine river.

Crumpled paper traced with blue, brown, and green markers Paper sprayed with water demonstrates effects of rainwater spreading pollutants

You can find the most recent information on health of the Rivanna Watershed on the “Stream Health” tab of our StoryMap.

And to learn more about land use within the Rivanna Watershed, check out this study done by the Rivanna Conservation Alliance.

You know your street address, but do you know your watershed address? Let’s find out:

  1. Go to the Virginia Hydrologic Unit Explorer website.
  2. On the left hand menu, click on “Find Your Address” and type in your home address.
  3. Click on the red dot and toggle through the 8 digit, 10 digit, and 12 digit tabs to see what watersheds you live in!

Example: Type in “1826 University Ave, Charlottesville, VA 22904” (Bonus points if you know what Charlottesville landmark this is!) Water from here affects Meadow Creek, Mechunk Creek, and the Rivanna River. It doesn’t stop there! Next is the James River and eventually, the Chesapeake Bay.

You’ll notice the building is technically in two different sub-watersheds. Next time you pass by this famous landmark, you’ll be crossing a watershed boundary!

Take a closer look at our interactive map of the Rivanna Watershed and its sub-watersheds in Albemarle County.

Watershed Sleuth badge

There is so much to learn about the water cycle, water quality, hydrology and aquatic life! Challenge yourself to become a Watershed Sleuth and explore helpful resources available to become more familiar with local and national waterways.

Become more familiar with the Rivanna Watershed by exploring our StoryMap.

Following the Rain

What happens to all that rain that falls out of the sky? The answer is, “It depends.” It depends on where the rains falls, or more importantly, what the rains falls on. Rain that falls onto a forest follows a much different path than rain that falls on a parking lot or rooftop. Trees can soak up most of the rain that falls on and around them, but hard surfaces send rain flowing away fast, and alas, we have stormwater!

Stormwater often is collected by pipes and travels underground until it reaches the nearest creek, stream, river, or lake. And unfortunately it picks up all kinds of nasty pollution like dog poop, pesticides and fertilizers applied in our yards, trash, oils and vehicle fluids dripped onto roads and parking lots, as well as dirt along the way. And once it’s there, it causes erosion of the banks of the streams! Not the best situation for the health of our local waterways, is it?

Fortunately, stormwater can be managed on its journey to our streams, and in some cases not even make it there at all. There are many local examples of ways to slow down, spread out, and soak up stormwater using natural features like plants, reducing the amount of pollution it carries. These stormwater management facilities come in many different shapes and forms, whether it be a green vegetated roof on top of the UVA Hospital, a grassy field that was converted to wetlands in the City’s Azalea Park, or a bioretention filter full of beautiful native plants that soaks up stormwater runoff from the parking lot of the Albemarle County Office Building.

There’s so much to the journey of the humble rain drop, huh? Learn more about it all by checking out our Rivanna River Story Map.

Follow the rain in this stormwater drainage tour:

You might think rainy days are meant for cozying up on the couch, but we are here to tell you to grab a raincoat and get outside! A rainstorm can show you a whole new world you didn't know existed.

Take a look at this list and see what you can find around your neighborhood. Follow the flow of water from where it hits your home to your nearest stream.

Go on the hunt for healthy water (online form version).

Or print this PDF version of the Stormwater Scavenger Hunt.

In this 12-minute video, visit UVA’s Dell to see a beautiful and beneficial stormwater management practice in action.

Homeowners can create their own working landscape by building a rain garden or installing conservation landscaping! You can even get technical assistance and funding from the Virginia/Charlottesville/Albemarle Conservation Assistance Programs (VCAP, CCAP, ACAP).

Threats to Our Waterways

While you may think it’s just common courtesy to pick up your dog’s poop on a walk or at the park, you are actually doing the environment and your local waterway an even bigger favor.

Every time it rains, runoff carries bacteria and other pathogens from your pets’ waste into local streams, and eventually the Chesapeake Bay. The runoff also carries an overload of nutrients which can cause harmful algae blooms in our local swimming lakes and drinking reservoirs.

Scoop the poop!

Bonus read: This Outside Magazine article says It’s Time to Talk About Dog Poop - one gram of dog poop can contain up to 23 million fecal coliform bacteria!

Whether you use fertilizer on turf grass or crops, it can wash downstream if you don't apply it correctly. Because it contains nutrients for plants, fertilizer in our waterways can result in algae blooms that cause water quality problems.

Follow the 4R Method of Fertilizing next time you plan to apply! What are the 4Rs for your specific lawn or crop? To find out, contact the Virginia Cooperative Extension for a soil sample by completing this form on their website.

The 4R method of fertilizing - right source, right time, right rate, right place

Watch the video below to learn about other nutrient pollution sources and why we want to consider how our everyday actions affect our waterways.

Have you ever noticed how our rivers and streams become a chocolate milk color after it rains? That is sediment (dirt) in the water and if there is too much of it, it can cover up insect habitat, clog fishes’ gills, and even smother plants.

But, where exactly does all that sediment come from? A lot of it gets picked up by stormwater runoff as it rushes across bare ground in yards, construction sites, farm fields, roadside ditches, gravel roads, etc. But many tons of sediment also come from eroding stream banks like the one shown below on the North Fork Rivanna River.

Eroding stream banks on North Fork Rivanna River

Stream banks that have very few trees or other plants to hold the soil in place are especially vulnerable to erosion like this. Also, in urban areas with lots of parking lots, roads, and buildings (called impervious cover), stormwater rushes into streams very quickly, causing miniature flash floods each time it rains. This can make stream erosion and sediment pollution far worse.

Fun Science Demo:  Try out your own version of this demonstration showing how the type of land cover determines the amount sediment that ends up in our water from erosion.


Did you know much of the trash that ends up in rivers gets there indirectly? Meaning, very few people walk to a stream and toss trash in. If that’s true, why do we find candy wrappers, styrofoam cups, and grocery bags in many of our local streams?

Explore this graphic and think about any time you have been out and seen a napkin on the sidewalk, or a plastic bag fell out of your car and the wind picked it up before you could grab it. Much of this type of litter gets picked up by stormwater and ends up in tributaries or the Rivanna River itself.

How trash gets into creeks

Preventing Water Pollution

Sign the Rivanna Stormwater Pledge to commit to keeping a healthy and thriving Rivanna watershed! (online form)

Clean water starts with YOU! Non-point source pollution, like lawn fertilizer, motor oil, and pet waste, is the leading cause of poor water quality in the Rivanna watershed. If you are part of a neighborhood or homeowners association, share with your neighbors the following message about what to keep out of the storm drain system. Only rain down the drain!

Keep storm drains free of grass clippings, paint, pet waste, motor oil, soaps, and litter

Upcoming Webcast: On June 11 (12:00 pm - 1:30 pm), the Piedmont Environmental Council will be hosting a webcast for folks interested in working with their homeowners associations to install landscaping practices that can protect water quality. Register for the webcast here:

Capturing the Rain: Green Infrastructure Options for HOA Common Areas

Under no circumstances should anything be disposed of down a storm drain or directly into a local waterway—this would be an “illicit discharge.” Since any liquids or waste products that get into our storm drains will eventually wash into our waterways untreated, only stormwater is allowed.

If you see or suspect an illicit discharge near/in a storm drain or in a water body, please report it to us! The best way to report non-emergency illicit discharges in the greater Charlottesville area is to complete our online form. You can also call our Hotline at 434-202-4179. (For hazardous waste spills and other emergencies, please call 911 instead.)

What are illicit dischargesWhat are signs of water pollution

Putting Nature to Work

Virginia wants to help homeowners meet their landscaping goals while also reducing pollutants. Check out two local properties below that received financial assistance from the Virginia Conservation Assistance Program and consider your own landscaping project! Contact the Thomas Jefferson Soil and Watershed Conservation District (TJSWCD) for more information about this cost-share funding opportunity.

Conservation Landscaping
Yard before conservation landscaping Yard after conservation landscaping
This Conservation Landscaping project transformed 2000 sq. ft. of sparse traditional lawn into a diverse landscape that helps to protect clean air and water and support wildlife. Converting landscapes into highly functioning ecosystems can have significant beneficial impacts on local water quality and that of the Chesapeake Bay.

“The back garden is a fantastic habitat for pollinators, birds, grasshoppers, and more. It was wonderful working with the Thomas Jefferson Soil and Water Conservation District Team. A real collaboration for which I am grateful!” —Ruth Mary

Rain Gardens
Rain garden plants Person standing in rain garden
Rain gardens are an easy and effective tool that reduces stormwater runoff from residential properties. They incorporate similar elements of gardening to promote cleaner air and water. Once established, rain gardens require little maintenance. Their plants have deep roots that soak up lots of water, provide food and habitat to wildlife, and have blooms that are quite stunning.

This Virginia Conservation Assistance Program rain garden project captures runoff from roughly 900 square feet of the property and filters over 500 gallons of water in a single 1-inch rainstorm.

“[VCAP] has been a very positive experience...I had no idea what to expect in regards to the process towards getting an application approved and going forward. I found the TJSWCD staff to be incredibly encouraging and available. The rain garden project has given my home a lot more character than it would have had otherwise.” —Martha

Additional Resources
TJSWCD Conservation for Homeowners
VCAP Program Manual
Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay: Reduce Your Stormwater
Albemarle County Native Plant Database

Magnolia virginiana
Magnolia virginiana (photo courtesy of Chesapeake Bay Program)

Eastern Redbud
Eastern Redbud (photo courtesy of Chesapeake Bay Program)

New York Ironweed
New York Ironweed (photo courtesy of Chesapeake Bay Program)

Planting natives is an excellent way to add visual impact while supporting local wildlife and water quality. Using native plants that are adapted to the climate and environment of the Virginia Piedmont can show off our unique ecosystem. Birds, insects, and wildlife benefit from the habitat and food these plants provide.

Use the Piedmont Native Plant Database to determine what flora best suits your property and needs!

If you are curious about some landscape features that reduce and clean stormwater runoff, head over to the Albemarle County Office Building at 401 McIntire Road, Charlottesville. There you will find the following “green infrastructure” practices that capture and clean runoff before it drains into Schenk’s Branch.

Parked cars on permeable pavers

These permeable pavers located in the employee parking lot allow rain and snow to infiltrate into the ground as opposed to into storm drains. Grease, oil, and dirt from vehicles are just a few of the pollutants we want to keep out of our waterways!

Rain garden with building in background

The rain garden you see here captures runoff from the roof before it can reach the parking lot and become polluted. The placement, design, soil composition, and plants slow water, prevent erosion, mitigate flooding, and protect the Rivanna River.


This biofilter collects polluted runoff from the lower parking lot and filters it through a combination of plants and soil. It also contains many native plants that provide habitat and food sources for pollinators.

Green roof

The vegetated soil layer on this green roof traps and uses rainfall while reducing runoff. The system also provides thermal insulation and protects the roof. (Access to the green roof is only available by appointment.)

Protecting Our Waterways

A “buffer” is an area along a waterway that is vegetated (hopefully with native species!) of trees, shrubs, grasses, and leaf material. Buffers provide many benefits to streams, rivers, and lakes. Most importantly they help prevent stream banks from eroding, provide shade which keeps water temperatures down, provide a source of food for wildlife, and they act as a final pollutant barrier to protect water quality.

James River Buffer Program funding: The James River Association and the Virginia Department of Forestry are working with landowners in our region to restore or create forest buffers. The James River Buffer Program will cover 100% of the total project costs including design, site preparation, materials, and installation!

Group planting tree buffer

For landowners of farmland, additional cost-share funding for establishing buffers and/or fencing out livestock from streams may be available from the Thomas Jefferson Soil and Water Conservation District.

Have you ever thought about how much water you use inside your home? How about outside? What about your “virtual” water use?

Check out the Water Calculator to see how it adds up!

For those looking to Love Your Watershed outside the home, Charlottesville and Albemarle have excellent resources for volunteering. Below are just a few of the groups and programs to consider.

Due to Covid-19, in-person volunteer events may not be held. Consider inquiring with groups below about what they are offering for do-it-yourself volunteering and stewardship.

Charlottesville LogoAdopt-A-Stream Program
Is there a certain creek or stream in Charlottesville for which you have a special affinity? Maybe it’s a place where you go to retreat from the hustle and bustle of life in the city to get some peace and quiet. Did you know you can officially adopt many sections of streams in the city? By removing litter from and along these streams you can help improve water quality and aesthetic values while fostering local watershed stewardship. If that piques your interest, you might want to check out the Adopt-a-Stream Program!
Ivy Creek Foundation logoIvy Creek Foundation
Ivy Creek Foundation offers several volunteer opportunities. Volunteers can learn to be a nature guide, cultural history guide, or trail monitor, or choose to provide support with new projects, fundraising events, administrative tasks, and more.
Rivanna Conservation Alliance
If you want to learn more about what lives throughout the streams in the Rivanna watershed, consider becoming a certified monitor for RCA’s benthic macroinvertebrate program. You’ll learn about aquatic species as stream health indicators, identification of macroinvertebrates, and much more. You can also volunteer for clean up events, administrative tasks, and river trail maintenance.
The Nature Conservancy
Fun fact: The Nature Conservancy’s Virginia Chapter is headquartered in our watershed! This organization offers opportunities for stream clean-up, preservation monitoring, administrative tasks, and more. You can see restoration work that the Nature Conservancy and City of Charlottesville have completed along Meadow Creek.
Wild Virginia
This non-profit works throughout Virginia to protect water quality and wild spaces. Volunteers can take on a variety of tasks including monitoring streams, leading interpretive hikes and organizing the annual film festival.

Exploring the Watershed

Whether you walk, bike, paddle, drive, horseback ride, or get around some other way...take yourself on a Watershed Passport tour! When you get to know the sites below and any of the many other wonders of our area, we think you will come to Love Your Watershed.

Hike Among Wildlife at Ivy Creek Natural Area
Ivy Creek Natural Area has over seven miles of trails which are currently open. The Foundation that offers wonderful natural history tours catered to each trail, through written guides, audio tours, and virtual tours.

1780 Earlysville Rd.
Charlottesville, VA 22903

Mountain Bike Preddy Creek
Preddy Creek is a favorite of many cyclists in the watershed. The varying trails attract new and experienced riders. Most beginners will stick to the outer loop trail whereas those looking for more of a challenge can go to the advanced section managed by the Charlottesville Area Mountain Bike Club.

3690 Burnley Station Rd.
Charlottesville, VA 22911

Float Darden Towe to Riverview Park
Float 2 miles along a stretch of one of the first State Scenic Rivers. Perfect for beginners, you’ll put in at Darden Towe Park and relax as you meander along the City and County border. A picnic beach, rope swing, Class I rapid and views of the historic water tower can be experienced along your route before taking out at Riverview Park.

Darden Towe Park
1445 Darden Towe Park
Charlottesville, VA 22911

Riverview Park
298 Riverside Ave.
Charlottesville, VA 22902

For those paddlers that would like to stay on the water longer (or for the history buffs out there), you can keep on floating down to Milton (another 3.7 miles). This stretch of the Rivanna is of intermediate difficulty, with several Class II and III rapids. You’ll pass by numerous historic sites, including Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello, Shadwell, and the ruins of Jefferson’s Mill. All in all, it is one historic reach of the river. Pull out at the end of Randolphs Mill Road (VA Route 793).

Check out Stormwater Planters
See a stormwater best management practice in action outside the Rivanna Conservation Alliance building. These planters collect runoff from the roof and filter out pollutants before they reach the Rivanna River just east of the property.

1150 River Rd.
Charlottesville, VA 22902

Visit a Piece of River History
A walk, bike, or paddle down the Old Mills Trail or the Rivanna allow you to reach remnants of the historic Woolen Mills dam. This dam was built to serve as a power source for the textile mill. The dam was removed in 2007 as a means of recovering migrating fish such as shad, herring, and American eel. Parts of the dam still remain for historical purposes. You can even find the old fish ladder!

Old Mills Trail @ Darden Towe Park
1445 Darden Towe Park
Charlottesville, VA 22911

Hand holding brook troutFish Native Brook Trout
If you want to get into the mountains and come face to face with the state fish of Virginia, look no further than the Moormans River. Get out early to avoid (most) of the crowds and always remember to practice Leave No Trace by packing out everything you pack in.

Sugar Hollow Rd.
Crozet, VA 22932

Did you know that the Rivanna and its tributaries are monitored by people in your community? Some of them include people known as River Stewards (with Rivanna Conservation Alliance) who paddle throughout the watershed and record observations. They look for wildlife, recreationalists, pollution, river hazards and much more. You can find all their past reports online as well!

Next time you go out, you can do your own version and use this Citizen Steward Report form to record observations of what you find along the river.

Thanks for joining us!

Please share your watershed stories and pictures with us online by using the #LoveYourWatershed tag.