A River Renaissance

The James River was in terrible shape 30 years ago, but cleanup efforts have largely restored its health. 

One suffocating summer Saturday in Richmond when I was in high school, in the 1970s, my friend suggested we go for a swim in the James River. We’d spent the preceding weeks in a windowless, air-conditioning-free downtown warehouse, building sets for a production at the city’s outdoor stage, Dogwood Dell. We’d probably lost our body weight in sweat and gained it again in the cheap, sugary, livid purple and green “bug juice” we bought and drank by the gallon. The thought of jumping into cool, fresh water was irresistible.

To get to the river required a long walk, considerable trespassing and, if I remember correctly, wading through a tick haven of tall grass. But finally we stood on the bank, just above Bosher Dam, west of the city. We plunged in. It was wonderful.

When my friend’s mother found out about our adventure, I believe she may have blanched. She seemed astonished and horrified in equal measure. Did we have any idea what was in that river?

We didn’t. I knew that longtime Richmonders spoke of the river with a sort of hushed horror, as though it were a neighbor’s daughter fallen into ruination and sin. I’d always put that down to some kind of irrational, citified dread of the river’s untamed wilderness of rocks and currents. I didn’t know that the James we’d been swimming in was contaminated at that time by a witch’s brew of industrial toxins, pesticides, chemical fertilizers and raw sewage. I didn’t know that Kepone had recently made the river a national byword for environmental disaster.

Had we known all that, it might have given us pause. Or it might not. As we didn’t fall ill or grow any extra limbs, we didn’t stop going down to the river—and, in fact, our subsequent expeditions were fueled by the illicit thrill of adventures your parents don’t approve of.

Today I am a parent, and I still swim in the river, and so does my child. Today, though, the James is a far healthier river. That is not to say that it is entirely healthy, or that the gains that have been made in the past decades can’t be lost without careful stewardship in the future—increasing development is now the major threat to many of America’s waterways. However, the signs of a river’s renaissance are everywhere on the James. Thanks in large part to the federal Clean Water Act of 1972, there has been a steady and substantial reduction of what are known as “point-source” pollutants, such as sewage and contaminated industrial discharges, that once turned parts of the river into veritable dead zones. Bald eagles, which had vanished from the James by the mid-1970s, decimated by DDT and possibly Kepone as well, have made an inspiring comeback; in fact, east of Hopewell, the James River National Wildlife Refuge alone boasts a roosting population of some 230 eagles. Where 45 years ago the editors of the Richmond News Leader described a stinking cesspool below Richmond, where “no aquatic life of any sort survives,” today recreational fishing thrives.

People are spending time on the river as well, in ever-growing numbers. According to Doug Lane, a fishing guide and owner of Angler’s Lane in Forest, Virginia, the James is considered one of the top three rivers on the East Coast for smallmouth bass fishing. Whitewater kayakers flock to Richmond, the only major city in the U.S. that boasts natural Class IV whitewater running through the middle of downtown. James River State Park in Gladstone, opened in 1999, now welcomes more than 50,000 visitors annually. Triathletes, history buffs, water skiers, mountain bikers, nature lovers, rowing teams, anglers, artists—the James has become their playground. (See accompanying story.)

For all those who have fought for decades to protect, promote and restore the river, this new interest and enthusiasm is an encouraging trend. Yet it also heralds the major challenge the river will face in the decades to come: development. The James has become a hot property, and the conflict between public and private interests is already evident in places like Richmond, where developers are turning once blighted or neglected waterfront properties into condominium towers and town-home communities. Meanwhile, the city’s proposed downtown master plan reflects the growing demand for, and benefits of, more public access to the river.

And so the question arises: Who owns the river? Who will make the choices to balance the desires and demands placed upon the James, especially when it’s expected that more land will be developed in Virginia in the next 40 years than has been in the first 400? “Our vision is a flowing Central Park. We want to make it the focal point of Richmond, the surrounding area and indeed the state,” said Rachel Flynn, Director of Community Development for the city of Richmond, at a recent “public square” forum on the river’s future, sponsored by the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

Bill Street, executive director of the nonprofit James River Association, understands, even appreciates those goals, but cautions, “It needs to be a priority for communities up and down the James to protect the river as we develop, and to make sure the river continues to be accessible and an asset for everyone.”

As Jud White, a biologist and an environmental policy manager for Dominion Resources, the energy company, said at the forum, “Everybody wants a piece of the river.” To get the public-private balance right, he added, “I think it’s going to require a lot of innovative thinking, cooperation and communications in the future.”

Since at least the founding of Jamestown, the James has always served multiple roles: highway, water source, power source, recreational resource, abundant fishery. Originating at the confluence of the Jackson and Cowpasture rivers, the James flows 340 miles to the Chesapeake Bay, making it one of the longest rivers in the U.S. contained entirely within a single state. The James River watershed—the region of land holding waterways that drain into the river—covers 10,000 square miles and is home today to 2.5 million people, a third of Virginia’s population; some 39 counties and 19 cities and towns rely upon it as their major source of drinking water. Along the river’s length, you can also see one of the largest harbors in the world, one of the largest bald eagle roosting grounds on the eastern seaboard, one of the last two remaining poled ferries in the U. S. (Hatton Ferry) and of course the home of that first permanent English settlement in North America. In 2007, a congressional resolution officially recognized the James as “America’s Founding River.”

To the intrepid members of the Virginia Company at Jamestown, the river they first named “the Powhatan Flu,” miles wide where it merged with the Chesapeake Bay, had oyster shoals so vast you could ground a ship on them. The river, teeming with sturgeon and shad and herring and rockfish, must have seemed a limitless resource. There was, after all, so much river and so few of them.

As settlement pushed west along the river corridor over the next four centuries, though, and the colony became a state and the state was plowed and paved and populated, the James suffered. It accumulated water-clouding sediments washed off land cleared of protective forests. It accumulated dams that tamed and altered its flow and worse; Bosher Dam, installed in 1823, cut off the river above Richmond to migrating fish for 176 years, until a fish passage was completed in 1999. The river accumulated industrial contaminants including dioxin, PCBs and, most infamously, Kepone, which shut down commercial fishing on the river between Hopewell and Hampton Roads for 13 years. It accumulated what are broadly known as “nutrients,” a hodgepodge including fertilizers, manure and other animal wastes, and sewage. In 1963, a Richmond News Leader editorial declared with disgust, “Our river is a sewer.”

Bill Street of the James River Association, which is dedicated to the protection and restoration of the James, can tick off the river’s mounting traumas over the centuries. Most came in the wake of the industrial revolution and, more recently, the problems associated with chemical fertilizers and then suburbanization and development: Rain-absorbing fields and forests are replaced with roofs and roads and parking lots, millions of square feet of impermeable surfaces from which rainwater pours off, cascades into waterways, erodes stream banks and carries with it whatever it sweeps up en route: dirt, oil, antifreeze, cigarette butts, pet wastes, pesticides. It is this last category that may worry him the most, because to the river, overdevelopment is a slow death from a thousand cuts. Every new house, every new driveway, every new sidewalk or school or shopping center adds more impermeable surface to the total. You can monitor a factory discharge pipe, but how do you monitor everywhere the rain falls?

Yet Street sounds a note of cautious optimism. With the help of the Clean Water Act, much has been accomplished in the past few decades. “We have done a tremendous amount on industrial wastewater discharges,” he says. “We’ve addressed the very obvious and egregious issues such as raw sewage routinely going into the river, and toxins such as Kepone and dioxin. We have a much healthier river that people can enjoy.”

Greg Garman, director of the Center for Environmental Studies at Virginia Commonwealth University, agrees. “There are a lot of reasons to be upbeat and very encouraged about positive changes,” he says. A fish ecologist/fisheries scientist by training, he notes that “overall water quality is much better,” and, as a result, “we have greater biological diversity, good productivity, the return of a lot of species like the American shad or possibly the sturgeon.” In only the last few years, in fact, evidence has mounted that a small breeding population of Atlantic sturgeon—once so thick in the water that John Smith declared they had more “than could be devoured by dog or man”—still hangs on somewhere in the James.

Bryan Watts, director of the Center for Conservation Biology at the College of William & Mary, points to the bald eagle’s return as even more inspiring evidence of a healthier river. “There were no pairs breeding on the James throughout the mid-’70s,” says Watts. “It’s the only major tributary of the Bay that went extinct.” This year, Watts and his research team clambered up towering pines and flew low overhead in a small airplane, checking eagles’ nests, and counted 128 pairs producing 186 chicks. In addition to the nesting birds, Watts says, they have counted more than 450 individual eagles in a single day in mid-summer. “The pattern we have seen with bald eagles on the James has been mirrored with osprey and blue heron,” he adds. “[The recovery] has been most dramatic on the James because the population went so low here.” As an indication of just how significant this turnaround has been, the lower James was recognized in 2006 by the Audubon Society as an “Important Bird Area,” one in a global network of essential bird habitats.

The challenge facing the James now is to preserve these gains, to make progress where it hasn’t been as strong (oyster and American shad populations, for example, are at a historic low), and to protect the watershed in the face of a rising tide of development. The key, as Dominion’s Jud White has said, will be thoughtful planning along with innovative thinking and cooperation among interest groups.

The effort to bring back the James River’s native sturgeon population represents one example of that approach. It’s a partnership among parties that might, by instinct, be at odds with one another—commercial fishermen, the Army Corps of Engineers, environmental advocates, state and federal government agencies, and fisheries scientists. “We’ve got a lot of concerned people,” says Chris Hager, a fisheries specialist with the Virginia Sea Grant Program. “They see preservation of the river through preservation of [the sturgeon]. If you can make the river healthy for these fish, if the population is coming back, we’re doing something good.”

Elsewhere in the state, conservation groups and state agencies are working with farmers to reduce the flow of fertilizers, sediments and animal wastes into the watershed. Chuck Frederickson, who serves as the James’ Riverkeeper, a public advocate for the river’s wellbeing, says, “They realize the benefits of it—they like to get out on the water too, and they want their kids to be able to swim in it without getting sick.”

Finding common ground is not always easy, of course. In Richmond, tensions have flared over private development versus public access to the riverfront, both sides insisting they have the city’s greater good in mind. “The riverfront should be one of the greatest public spaces in the city. It shouldn’t be just for private ownership, but a great civic, public place, so all our citizens have access to it,” argues Rachel Flynn, Richmond’s director of community development.

But at the recent forum, developer George Ross, whose Echo Harbor project has run into opposition in part because some residents argue it will block a historically important view of the river, argued that Richmond’s economic realities can’t be ignored. “Commercial enterprise producing taxable income,” he said, was crucial to the city.

Ultimately, the fact that so many people now are talking about the James, taking an interest in it, asking for access to it—all these are good signs for the river’s future. The James belongs to the Commonwealth, and the Commonwealth is its people, and as more of us experience the river, so do we begin to recognize our responsibility for it. What’s “in that water,” after all, is in our water, a river we continue to depend upon as a vital resource. “We all have this marvelous privilege of being part owners of the James,” says Riverkeeper Chuck Frederickson, “but along with that we are all responsible for keeping it clean.”

What does that mean in practice? It will require new ways of thinking about how we develop, suggests the James River Association’s Bill Street, incorporating practices that allow us to add the homes and businesses we need without adding burden to the watershed. “There are lots of techniques that have been developed over the last 10 to 15 years to make it possible to protect the river as we develop,” he says, citing examples such as reducing the amount of impervious surfaces with new development and increasing natural buffers that filter runoff before it enters waterways.

It also will be important to preserve land that remains undeveloped. According to Street, 70 percent of the watershed remains in forest today, providing for the James a vital buffer that has been instrumental in the river’s recovery.

At the individual level, we might all better understand how the choices we make flow downstream. The link between fertilizer on your lawn in Bedford and the future of estuarial oyster beds at the other end of the river may not be intuitive, but runoff is a serious problem precisely because it is so widespread, because it comes not just from city streets and shopping mall parking lots, but also off individual back yards and rooftops.

“One-third of the state’s population lives in the James River watershed,” says Virginia’s secretary of natural resources, Preston Bryant. “We have 6.5 million acres in the watershed. What you do in your front yard, what you spray off your paved driveway, impacts the river.” Steps as simple as replacing water- and fertilizer-hungry grass with native plants, or installing a rain barrel that allows you to capture and reuse rainwater, might seem like mere drops in the bucket within the vastness of a 10,000-square-mile watershed, but cumulatively such individual acts take on significance.

Every week for the past year, I’ve ridden my bike along the same stretch of the James in Richmond, pedaling through the four seasons. There are summer mornings when the air lays thick and heavy and the water barely splashes over the low dam at Williams Island; then autumn, with the flaming colors of wildflowers along the river’s banks; then through the still winter mornings when a rime of ice glazes the rocks at the river’s edge and I wonder whether the ducks paddling about out there ever get cold feet; and on into the rain-swollen spring, when the water is transformed into a wild, fast-moving, white-capped turmoil. Most mornings, I have the river to myself, and I’ve gotten to feeling proprietary about this little piece of the James. I watch for the great blue heron that regularly stands sentry on the fallen tree wedged across the dam. I am surprised one day by an osprey that suddenly splashes down in front of me in pursuit of a fish. I am mesmerized sometimes by the play of light on the cascading waters.

I’ve taken to going out of my way to go by here on other days too. Now, on the way home from errands and extracurriculars, my son says, “Let’s take the scenic route.” One late afternoon on the very edge of evening, as we moved slowly along to see what we might see, a large, dark creature lumbered into the road. “What the heck is that?”

It turned a bland, buck-toothed stare in our direction. A beaver: an animal, I realized, I’d never actually seen in the flesh. It was surprisingly big, with a lustrous, nearly black coat.

We looked at the wide expanse of river rolling along to our left, and imagined the beaver’s grand ambitions for it and the trees along its bank.

“So yeah, good luck with that,” we said, as the beaver turned away again and went on about its life.

(Originally published in the August 2008 Issue)

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