Inventory & Monitoring at Colonial National Historical Park

Phragmites lines a creek in Colonial National Historical Park
Phragmites lines a creek in Colonial National Historical Park.  NPS Photo

Colonial National Historical Park's 3,740 hectares are within the coastal plain of Tidewater Virginia. The park consists of two significant land holdings, the Yorktown and Jamestown units, connected by a narrow traffic corridor, called the Colonial Parkway. The park is located adjacent to a rapidly developing urban/suburban area. The entire park has a direct hydrological link to the Chesapeake Bay. Most of the park extends along either the York or James Rivers, two of the largest rivers contiguous to the western shore of the Chesapeake Bay. In addition, numerous streams, creeks and ponds flow through the park and feed directly into one of these two rivers. Mixed pine and hardwood forests cover most of the park. Substantial acreage of both tidal and nontidal wetlands and open fields also exist. The park is within the boundaries of the counties of York, James City, Gloucester, Surry, the City of Williamsburg and Virginia Beach.

More than 30 miles of shoreline along the James and York rivers bounds the park. In addition, approximately 24 miles of perennial streams and 30 miles of intermittent streams and drainage's flow through the park. Numerous freshwater tributaries in Yorktown become tidally influenced estuarine waters as they approach the James and York rivers. The Colonial Parkway passes among upland and tidal streams as well as freshwater and brackish ponds. A freshwater spring and a small creek are found at Green Spring plantation and a series of springs and seeps originate on Yorktown Battlefield. Numerous ephemeral sinkholes occur in the Yorktown Battlefield and along the Parkway between Yorktown and College Creek. Preliminary findings indicate generally good water quality in most surface waters within the park. However, some streams are impaired based on analysis of physical attributes and benthos. Most of the water bodies and wetlands in the park have major portions of their drainage basin upstream and outside of park boundaries. Therefore, activities outside of the park have a detrimental effect on water quality within the park (oil spills, erosion and sedimentation, chemicals).

Erosion is a significant process along the river shorelines of the park. Although much of the erosion results from normal and storm induced wave activity, impacts resulting from recreational use have become a concern. Shoreline recession threatens the cultural resources of Jamestown Island, Glasshouse Point and Yorktown. The park in cooperation with the Virginia Institute of Marine Science and the US Army Corp of Engineers conducted a study of the 17 miles of park shoreline along the James River. The study has provided a better understanding of the shoreline erosion process over the past decades, those areas experiencing the highest erosion rates and recommendations (with alternatives) for conserving the shoreline and its associated cultural and natural resources. A cost benefit analysis has been completed and approved. Major funding has been procured and an EIS is being prepared.

The park, in cooperation with researchers from the Virginia Institute of Marine Science conducted a study to investigate the effects of adjacent urban and agricultural development on the shallow groundwater and selected surface water resources of the park. Testing indicates potential local sources of groundwater contamination from nitrate and ammonia at several sites near Jamestown Island, Williamsburg and Yorktown. Salinity and phosphate concentrations were low or below detectable levels. The US Geological Survey, USGS is conducting a study to develop the hydrogeological framework of the Yorktown area of the park and surrounding environs.
The biological resources of Colonial NHP include a variety of birds, fish, mammals, aquatic invertebrates, plants and wetlands typical of the mid-Atlantic Coastal Plain. None of these resources is limited to the park, but parklands provide important habitat within the larger geographic area. The park contains significant aquatic habitats within the tidal systems found along the shores of the York and James rivers and in most of the tidal creeks to those rivers. In addition, freshwater streams and ponds in the Yorktown unit and along the Colonial Parkway support a number of freshwater aquatic communities. Protection of these aquatic communities is also important because the park provides unique opportunities for public observation, education and recreational fishing. The roadways and access areas throughout the park afford opportunities for close examination of wetlands and waterfowl as well as opportunities for swimming fishing and shellfishing.

According to studies by the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation, Division of Natural Heritage Colonial NHP has the second highest number of rare threatened and endangered species of all the National Park Service units in the state. The inventory reports indicate the importance of parklands and areas adjacent to the park. The Division of Natural Heritage has recently completed a detailed management plan for these species and habitats. The following is a list of current park management issues faced at the park.

  • Shoreline change: River shoreline erosion along the shorelines of COLO is significant. It is caused by normal and storm induced wave activity and visitor recreational use. Recent research has provided a better understanding of the shoreline erosion process, those areas experiencing the highest erosion rates and recommendations for conserving the shoreline and its associated cultural and natural resources.

  • Estuarine water quality: Loss of submerged aquatic vegetation (SAVs) within estuarine habitats at COLO has been noted. Current estuarine water quality within this area is unknown.

  • Aquatic impacts from adjacent land use: COLO is located adjacent to a rapidly developing urban/suburban area. The entire park has a direct hydrological link to the Chesapeake Bay. Numerous streams, creeks and ponds with major portions of their drainage basin upstream and outside of park boundaries, flow through the park and feed directly into the York or James River. Preliminary analysis of physical attributes and benthos in some of these streams indicate that they are impaired. Activities from adjacent urban and agricultural development may have a detrimental effect on water quality within the park.

  • Groundwater contamination: Testing indicates potential local sources of groundwater contamination from nitrate and ammonia at several sites near Jamestown Island, Williamsburg and Yorktown. The US Geological Survey, USGS is conducting a study to develop the hydrogeological framework of the Yorktown area of the park and surrounding environs.

  • Visitor and recreational use impacts/endangered species protection: COLO has the second highest number of rare, threatened and endangered species of all the National Park Service units in the state. Visitor impacts and recreational activity effects on rare, threatened and endangered species and other species is unknown.

  • Exotic species management: Currently the impacts of exotic species on native species and rare/sensitive habitats is unknown.

Last updated: August 13, 2018