On a bright April morning, Chuck Frederickson pulls his 23-foot skiff out of a marina at the foot of the Benjamin Harrison Bridge just downstream from Hopewell. Out in the channel, he throttles up, and the boat’s bow rises as it heads upstream.
The heat of the rising sun has begun to draw a mist from the water, and a scrim of humidity washes the sky with diffuse light. Several minutes later, once Frederickson has stopped the boat’s engine, a calm prevails, and the sounds of waterfowl skip across the glassy surface of the James. Every now and then, a fish breaks free from the water in a momentary whoosh and splash.
The tranquility of the scene causes a boat passenger to joke that there are worse places to work than out on a river. Frederickson agrees heartily, grinning. “I have the prettiest office in the world. I tell people, ‘Don’t mess up my office.’ ”
In fact, that is exactly the aim of Frederickson’s job with the James River Association, a nonprofit conservation group based in Mechanicsville. The 59-year-old Hopewell resident works for the JRA as its sole full-time riverkeeper, monitoring all 340 miles of the James from the Allegheny Mountains to the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay.
Bill Street, the association’s executive director, is also aboard on this trip, and he describes Frederickson as “the eyes and ears” of the JRA. Frederickson spends two to three days a week on the river, collecting water samples for research and taking measurements of the water’s temperatures, its clarity and its oxygen levels. He keeps an eye out for anything fishy, literally, that suggests a problem with the river — fish kills, algae blooms, rapidly eroding banks or murky patches of water. He also watches to see if wildlife species are flourishing, evidenced today by the active bald-eagle and osprey nests he spots on islands and the shoreline.
This month, the association releases its “State of the James” report, an analysis of the river’s health as an ecosystem, a natural asset and a recreational resource.
Twenty-five years ago, Street says, the James was largely unfit for fishing and swimming, due mostly to industrial pollution, including an infamous episode in the 1960s and ’70s when a toxic chemical known as Kepone was drained into the river around Hopewell.
“In the ’70s, the Kepone issue was what the James was most known for,” Street says. “It shut down the river for any kind of fishing for 13 years for a hundred miles, and I think that was really illustrative of the issues and how the river was treated. There was raw sewage being routinely discharged into the river. Richmond and other communities really turned their back on the river because it was so polluted.”
Since then, Street says, the James River has rebounded. The water is cleaner, wildlife is on the rise and, on average, the fish are safe to eat.
But this month’s report from the JRA, its first in six years, again points out a growing reality facing the James: Whereas decades ago the worst pollution entering the river came largely from plants and factories, today the major challenge is how to control the sediment, waste and chemicals that are flushed from farms, construction sites, housing developments and streets into the river every time it rains. It’s known as non-point source pollution because it can’t always be pinned on a single plant, factory or drainage pipe.
Mark Prentice, the director of water reclamation for Henrico County, says fighting point-source pollution was the environmental crucible of his generation. “The challenge for the next generation is going to be how to handle the runoff,” he says.
Events such as the Kepone episode, says Street, brought about the Clean Water Act of 1972 and focused intense regulatory pressure on cleaning up and preventing industrial pollution.
What the JRA is trying to do now, however, is to spread public awareness that everyday actions within the watershed territory of the James River can contribute to its eventual decline. “It is the cumulative impact,” he says. “It is the death of a thousand cuts, quite literally.”
Don’t Drink the (River) Water
When kayaker Chris Hull first came to Richmond about 10 years ago, he says, paddlers like himself stayed out of the James River if they had any cuts on their bodies. The fear was that the wounds would become infected from the dirty water.
Today, says Hull, president of the James River Outdoor Coalition, an alliance of recreational groups that use the river, he and fellow kayakers are less wary of going in the James, except after major rainstorms when bacteria counts usually spike because of polluted stormwater inundating the waterway.
Ralph White, director of the city’s James River parks, notes the direct correlation between improvements in the water quality and the recreational draw of river. During the summer, he says, riverside parks get about 65,000 visitors a month. “That’s three times what it was in the early ’80s,” he says.
The bacterial threat of runoff water is evident on the Web site of the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality. During the summer months, says spokesman Bill Hayden, DEQ tests the river weekly to measure the levels of E. coli, a bacteria associated with the feces of humans and animals. Swallowing water with E. coli can cause mild digestive sickness up to a life-threatening illness, and water carrying E. coli can infect open wounds.
On DEQ’s Web site, a map of key recreational areas in the city’s James River Park System links to bar charts showing previous measurements of E. coli in the river. And corresponding with the dates of major storms, one can see tall red bars that shoot well over the maximum limit of E. coli that is considered a threat to human health.
“When you have contamination at that maximum allowable limit, it means that it would be unhealthy to swim in the river,” Hayden says.
He adds that there is no practical way to offer a real-time assessment of the river’s bacteria levels since lab results are not immediately available.
Last year, DEQ released its biannual “dirty waters” report on Virginia’s lakes, rivers and streams. The agency reported that about 9,000 miles of Virginia’s rivers and streams — out of the roughly 14,260 miles it tested — are considered polluted waters because they don’t meet the state’s water-quality standards. The tributaries had levels of toxic chemicals, heavy metals and other contaminants that are considered unsafe or unhealthy for people and animals. These include, most notably, mercury; PCBs, which were used for many industrial and electrical applications decades ago; and fecal bacteria from animal and human waste.
If the James River were a living, breathing person, that person would be chowing down about 12 Big Macs a day.
This is one of Street’s favorite analogies. He says the James is being fed a steady diet of two elements — nitrogen and phosphorus — that threaten to choke the life out of it, like cholesterol clogging a person’s arteries and leading to heart disease, diabetes and other chronic health problems. In fact, Street says, this is the case with most U.S. rivers, mirroring the nation’s obesity epidemic.
In normal, natural amounts, nitrogen and phosphorus are good things. They support life and help plants grow. But in excess these two elements quickly turn deadly for a river — high levels give rise to algae blooms, floating clouds of greenish muck that sap the water of the oxygen that underwater grasses and fish need.
Nowhere in Virginia is this more dramatic than the Chesapeake Bay, which researchers earlier this year gave a grade of D-minus on a comprehensive report card of its health. The cumulative pollution running into the bay from its coasts and tributaries — including the James River — has left massive dead zones, barren of aquatic vegetation and other key parts of the ecosystem, such as oysters and shellfish.
Chuck Epes, spokesman for the nonprofit Chesapeake Bay Foundation, says it all comes back to what’s upstream. And a major culprit — farming — sends considerable amounts of nitrogen and phosphorus into the water from livestock and crop fertilizers, which are often applied too liberally.
Groups such as JRA and CBF mounting continual campaigns to educate farmers about steps they can take to reduce the polluted runoff from their crops and livestock. “But they don’t have the funds to do it independently,” Epes says, which is why CBF is lobbying for federal money to subsidize conservation-minded farming practices. Epes says these actions include fencing livestock away from streams and rivers, leaving forest buffers between crops and waterways, and managing the use of crop fertilizers. As well, farmers are encouraged to use tilling practices that minimize the amount of earth they dig up. Otherwise, Epes says, waterways end up inheriting the sediment. “What you wind up getting is this big, muddy stretch of stream or river.”
Look in the Mirror
Working as a professional steward of the James, riverkeeper Frederickson has plenty of opportunities to exercise his sense of irony. He tells a story of when he was a teenager working a summer construction job in Hopewell and was given the task of clearing scrub trees and greenery from the riverbank of a home. Today, he recognizes that the “scrub” greenery he ripped down had served as a natural filter for runoff water. As his boat floats down the James, Richardson nods toward the riverbank he cleared in the 1960s and chuckles, “I sure wish I’d left a 100-foot buffer.”
Earlier, upstream, the riverkeeper had pointed out the creek where dumped Kepone had drained into the river in the ’60s and ’70s. And then he notes the dichotomy of past and present: Now within view of that creek are several active eagle nests. The birds were almost decimated decades ago along this stretch of the tidal James; DDT and Kepone in the fish they ate had caused their eggs to be so brittle they were crushed by the nesting parents.
Conservation groups like the JRA and the CBF say point-source pollution hasn’t gone away, and Epes of the CBF says that pollution limits still need to be tightened.
Nevertheless, state and local officials are increasingly showing an awareness of the river’s issues.
In Richmond, one of the chief challenges in cleaning up the James has been overhauling an antiquated wastewater-treatment facility that now handles about 35 million to 40 million gallons per day of waste.
Chris Beschler, Richmond’s director of public utilities, says the city has made upgrades to its wastewater-treatment system — both to eliminate raw sewage from entering the river and to exceed DEQ standards for the discharged water from the plant.
At issue, though, is the fact that the city’s sewage system dates back to the 1800s. And one-third of the system is what’s known as a combined sewer overflow (CSO). During heavy rainstorms, such systems allow excess storm runoff to combine with the city’s sanitary sewer system as a backup. But as a result, the system sometimes overflows into the river with a mix of untreated sewage and stormwater. “Clearly, we never want to dump sewage into the river under any circumstances,” Beschler says, but he notes the raw sewage is extremely diluted in those instances.
Since the 1970s, Beschler says, the city has put more than $250 million total into upgrading the CSO system to reduce overflows. “We may have that happen four times a year” during heavy storms, he says.
Unlike other localities, which separate stormwater entirely from sewage, the city’s system treats runoff water from roughly one third of the city’s sewers. Ostensibly, that means less runoff pollution heading to the James. Typically, localities send sewer water untreated from their streets through pipes into a tributary.
But recently, the administration of Mayor L. Douglas Wilder proposed creating a stormwater utility to increase the city’s capacity for treating stormwater.
Richmond is among a number of localities that are also working to improve the quality of water that leaves sewage-treatment plants. The water from treated sewage still contains nitrogen and phosphorus, but DEQ requires each locality to meet certain water-quality limits, based on how many parts per million of each element are left in the water. By 2011, the state has mandated that municipal wastewater-treatment systems need to meet a higher water-quality standard. The state offers grants and loans to help localities make those changes.
Prentice, in Henrico County, says his treatment plants already exceed DEQ limits, but the county is working to reduce levels of nitrogen and phosphorus even more. “If I held up a glass of our drinking water and a glass of our effluent,” he says, “you would not be able to pick which one was which.”
Street of JRA applauds administrators in New Kent County — a rapidly growing county within the James River and Chesapeake Bay watersheds — for policies that encourage low-impact development.
New Kent County Administrator John Budesky says the locality is attempting to be “fair and equitable to the development community but also trying to protect the land we’re all proud of.” He adds, “They can get the maximum use of the land, but there are techniques they can use that will minimize the impact.” Such practices include clustering housing development to preserve green space and designing drainage systems and hard surfaces that prevent water from rapidly running off into streams or rivers.
As the region’s localities move toward a higher water-quality standard, Paul Bukaveckas, a biology professor at Virginia Commonwealth University, will be watching to see its effect on the tidal James, below the fall line.
“All of those effluent pipes discharge between Hopewell and Richmond,” Bukaveckas says. “That’s probably one of the contributing factors as to why there are algal blooms.”
In May, Bukaveckas and a team of graduate assistants began a research project — enlisting the help of Frederickson — to study the possible causes of algae blooms near Hopewell. DEQ already takes measurements to monitor the river, but his team is going to take more frequent samples from more locations around the river.
Bukaveckas also is proposing to conduct a study of the mysterious foam that has sporadically appeared along the James within the city limits. Late last year, DEQ tested the foam clouding the surface water but determined that it did not seem immediately harmful.
When problems such as these recoccur, Bukaveckas says, people may become skeptical as to whether the river’s health is truly on the rebound.
“I do sense that there’s some frustration that we’re spending money on the Chesapeake Bay and the James River, and it’s not getting better or it’s not getting better as quickly as it should,” he says. “But I think what people have to understand is that during a time that development is continuing and population is increasing, the river is not getting any worse, and that’s quite an achievement. It means that the environmental efficiency of our development is getting better.”
Protecting the James
Conservation groups say that the greatest challenge to the health of the James River today is the cumulative effect of land development, agriculture and polluted runoff washing into the tributaries. Groups like the James River Association say there are steps everyone, including localities, farmers, citizens and developers, can take to reduce the impact:
Unhealthy Impacts on the James
1. Farms: Mismanagement of animal waste and crop fertilizers add to high levels of nitrogen and phosphorus in the river. Tilled soil adds sediment to runoff, clouding the river water.
2. Land development: Commercial and residential construction projects increase paved surfaces, rapidly channeling rainwater into streams and the river. Result: Soil erosion along waterways and, again, polluted, dirt-heavy runoff.
3. Residential Impact: Lawn fertilizers are often washed straight into stormwater drains, adding pollution, nitrogen and phosphorus.
Unhealthy water: Excess nitrogen and phosphorus in the James give rise to green, mucky algae blooms that block sunlight to the river bottom. Sediment from land clearing and eroded stream banks also clouds the water and covers aquatic vegetation and habitat for wildlife.These combined factors choke oxygen — and living species — out of the river.Healthy
Practices to Save the James
1. Farms: Stream fencing can keep animals (and their waste) out of streams, and farmers can closely monitor crop fertilizers and leave natural buffers (trees, grasses, etc., known as “riparian buffers”) between crops and waterways. Winter cover crops and “no-till” practices leave soil intact.
2. Land Development: Wise use of acreage can cluster residential and commercial development to leave green spaces that work as natural water filters. Filtration ponds and systems remove pollutants. Permeable paving and drainage features can reduce excess stormwater runoff.
3. Residential Impact: Modest use of fertilizers and direction of gutter drains into rain barrels or lawns can reduce harmful stormwater runoff.
Healthy Habitat: Cleaner, clearer water lets sunlight through and allows underwater grasses, oxygen levels and rocky river-bottom habitat to flourish, nurturing a complex chain of wildlife from oysters, shad and sturgeon to ducks, ospreys and eagles.