The James River remains a river at risk. That’s the unsettling verdict of the State of the James report publicly released Thursday by the James River Association. The biennial report, which tracks the river’s health, gave the James a grade of B- and an overall health grade of 60%. The health grade is based on 18 indicators that include the population of fish and wildlife species native to the river, the condition of the natural habitat and pollution reduction efforts.
This year’s score remains the same as the last report, issued in 2017. Record rains in 2018 resulted in setbacks in a number of indicators, including sediment reductions, bacteria pollution, tidal water quality and oysters, William H. Street, the association’s CEO, said in a statement. The report noted concerning declines in the American shad and oyster populations, which fell by 10% and 12%, respectively.
While last year’s downpours caused six indicators to drop, seven still increased — which Street attributed to investments that Virginia has made in clean water programs. “This is a positive sign for the resilience of the James, but it is a departure from the steady improvements that we have seen since we first issued the State of the James in 2007.”
A bright spot in the report was the increase in bald eagles. Threatened with extinction a half-century ago, these majestic raptors have made a dramatic comeback. The James River eagle population is one of the densest in North America, according to the report. For the first time since the survey began 50 years ago, the number of breeding pairs has surpassed 300 and is up 11 percentage points from 2017.
About one-third of Virginia’s population lives in the James River watershed. The river is a national treasure. It stretches nearly 350 miles across Virginia, from the mountains to the Chesapeake Bay. Street noted that Virginia has invested more than $400 million in clean water projects within the watershed since 2005, with most of the money going to upgrades in wastewater and sewer systems. Progress has been made, but work remains. We hope cleanup plans and pollution control programs top lawmakers’ lists during the upcoming General Assembly.
— Pamela Stallsmith