Tuesday, May 17, 2022

How safe is it to swim in the James River? This new report will tell you.

Swimmers prepare for the Jamestown Triathlon at Jamestown Beach Event Park in 2014. (WYDaily/Courtesy of Joe Schrader Photography)
Swimmers prepare for the Jamestown Triathlon at Jamestown Beach Event Park in 2014. (WYDaily/Courtesy of Joe Schrader Photography)

A new report has found the James River is generally safe for recreational activities — but you might want to reconsider going to the river after it rains.

A new report from the James River Association shows that 83 percent of all samples collected weekly between Memorial Day and Labor Day over the last five years have met Virginia’s water safety standard.

Seventeen percent of the samples, however, did not meet state water quality standards.

The results were published today (June 1) in a report titled “Swimming Safety in the James — Know Before You Go: Bacteria Monitoring Results 2013-2017.” The report compiles five years of water quality monitoring data to identify bacteria patterns in the James River.

The James River Association is a member-supported nonprofit organization that has served as a “guardian and voice for the James River” since 1976.

Since 2013, the association has monitored the water quality in both the James and its tributaries. Trained volunteers collect water samples every weekend from Memorial Day to Labor Day in areas where public recreation is common.

According to the report, most contamination in the river occurred after heavy rainfalls, which wash bacteria and pollution from the land into the river. The samples are tested for water cloudiness, also known as turbidity; temperature; and E. coli bacteria.

E. coli can be harmful to humans and can be an indicator for the presence of other harmful bacteria in the water, the association said.

Three James City County sites on the James River are listed as test sites in the report: Chickahominy Riverfront Park, Jamestown Beach and Powhatan Creek. The locations have pass rates of 100 percent, 96 percent and 71 percent, respectively.

“This data demonstrates that our local waterways are safe for recreation most of the time, but extra caution is necessary after rainstorms,” said Jamie Brunkow, James riverkeeper for the James River Association. “It is important for river goers to know local conditions before spending time on the river. Checking James River Watch is an easy way to ensure a safe, fun time on the water.”

Buckroe Beach in Hampton, Va, Jan. 25, 2017. (WYDaily/Sarah Fearing)
Buckroe Beach in Hampton, Va, Jan. 25, 2017. (WYDaily/Sarah Fearing)

From the James to the Chesapeake Bay

The James River is not alone in its issues with contamination; bacteria pollution can be traced to both urban areas and rural farmlands.

Areas where farm animals have access to rivers and streams are common contributors to bacterial pollution in the water, the report said.

Rainfall also drives bacteria from sewage systems into Virginia waterways. The James River starts in the Appalachian Mountains and is one of several Virginia waterways that drain into the Chesapeake Bay.

In December, the Chesapeake Bay Program released new data that found the bay’s water quality had reached an all-time high, with 40 percent of the bay meeting clean water standards for clarity.

The improvement still fell short of the program’s 2017 goal, which was to see a 60-percent improvement in quality.

Since 2010, the Environmental Protection Agency’s Chesapeake Bay cleanup plan has been in full swing, encouraging six states surrounding the bay to reduce their pollution. The plan includes the James River watershed and is critical to the bay’s restoration, the report reads.

To combat contamination and improve Virginia’s water quality, the state has cleanup plans for both the James River and the Chesapeake Bay. Cleanup activities include practices that reduce urban stormwater runoff and agricultural pollution.

“Human health continues to be at risk due to pollution entering the James River. To ensure that the James is safe for everyone to enjoy, we need to strengthen and adequately fund state and local programs to address polluted runoff from urban stormwater and agriculture” Brunkow said.

The James River Association has released a report on the health of the James River. (WYDaily/Courtesy James City County)
The James River Association has released a report on the health of the James River. (WYDaily/Courtesy James City County)

See and do for yourself

Over the years, the James River Association has uploaded the results of weekend water quality tests to the James River Watch website.

Residents can check the website before going to the river.

Beyond just recreation, poor river water quality can also affect drinking water.

“The James River provides drinking water for 2.7 million Virginians, and poorer water quality at the beginning of the treatment process raises costs,” the report reads. “Further, poorer water quality inhibits the increased tourism revenue, community cohesion, and citizen health made possible by recent improvements in the health of the James River.”

Those who want to get involved with cleaning up the James River and the Chesapeake Bay can take simple steps at home to reduce their pollution, including picking up after pets, installing rain gardens and planting trees and native plants.


Fearing can be reached at sarah.f@localvoicemedia.com.

Sarah Fearing
Sarah Fearing is the Assistant Editor at WYDaily. Sarah was born in the state of Maine, grew up along the coast, and attended college at the University of Maine at Orono. Sarah left Maine in October 2015 when she was offered a job at a newspaper in West Point, Va. Courts, crime, public safety and civil rights are among Sarah’s favorite topics to cover. She currently covers those topics in Williamsburg, James City County and York County. Sarah has been recognized by other news organizations, state agencies and civic groups for her coverage of a failing fire-rescue system, an aging agriculture industry and lack of oversight in horse rescue groups. In her free time, Sarah enjoys lazing around with her two cats, Salazar and Ruth, drinking copious amounts of coffee and driving places in her white truck.

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