Skip to Content

What is the Healthy Waters approach?

At a time when so much of the news about the environment is negative, some biologists have been wading through Virginia's streams in search of some positive information. What they've found suggests that there is another very important story. Virginia has nearly 200 ecologically healthy streams, creeks and rivers throughout the state, and there are more yet to be identified. That's nearly 10 percent of the streams sampled.

Virginia's Healthy Waters initiative is an effort to broaden conservation efforts to include these critical healthy resources before they are compromised. This seems in contrast to water quality programs that focus on repairing degraded streams, but is meant to work in concert and protect living resources.

This approach encompasses protecting everything from aquatic insect larvae and bugs hidden in gravelly stream bottoms, to forested buffers alongside streams, to natural stream flow, to the water we drink. It's all interconnected and is an effort to maintain ecological balance.

What defines healthy waters?

  • A high number of native species and a broad diversity of species
  • Few or no non-native species
  • Few generalist species that are tolerant of degraded water quality
  • A high number of native predators
  • Migratory species whose presence indicates that river or stream systems are not blocked by dams or other impediments
  • Low incidence of disease or parasites
  • Intact buffers of vegetation in the riparian zone

How are healthy waters identified and assessed?

Healthy streams in Virginia have been identified and ranked through a stream ecological integrity assessment known as the Interactive Stream Assessment Resource (INSTAR) as "exceptionally healthy," "healthy," or "restoration candidate."

Developed by the Center for Environmental Studies at Virginia Commonwealth University, INSTAR is an online interactive database application that identifies healthy streams using stream data that includes information about fish communities and bugs, in-stream habitat and riparian borders.

Available to the public through a free, user-friendly website,, INSTAR is designed primarily to assist regional and local planners, advocacy groups and individuals with planning and land use decisions. INSTAR does this by helping to identify healthy streams in their communities and encourage their protection.

cover of the healthy waters book For a complete PDF version of "Healthy Waters - A New Ecological Approach to Identifying and Protecting Healthy Waters in Virginia," click here. To order a copy of the publication by mail, contact Todd Janeski at, 804-371-8994.

"I see this as complementary to our water quality programs, which emphasize restoring impaired waters. You cannot have one (restoration) without the other (protection) - they work hand in hand. By identifying the healthy watersheds that still remain and taking steps to protect them, we can ensure that they'll be healthy in the future and that the natural infrastructure will remain to support our restoration efforts." - Laura Gabanski, aquatic biologist, U.S. EPA