RICHMOND — The James River Association (JRA) released its biennial “State of the James” report Thursday, grading the overall health of the river as a B with a score of 66%, an improvement from what it called its failing health decades ago.
JRA estimates that the river’s health in the 1970s would have rated a D-minus grade.
While, in recent years, JRA noted the pace of progress has slowed, it said a grade-A James River is still possible by addressing key issues.
“The James River has come a long way since JRA was founded in 1976, and is now a prized asset for the communities that surround it, playing an important role in people’s lives everyday,” said Bill Street, CEO and President for JRA. “While progress has slowed in recent years as the river faces new challenges from climate change, we see signs that a grade A James is possible if we keep up our collective commitment and all do our part to safeguard the river for future generations.”
JRA says its “State of the James” is essentially a report card for the river, summarizing ongoing efforts to bring it back to full health. This assessment is compiled using data from partners across the watershed, and examines the status and trends of eighteen indicators across two categories — river health and river restoration progress.
In terms of good news for the James, JRA said underwater grasses expanded to their highest total on record and tidal water quality also returned to its recent high. Both are largely influenced by pollution from upstream sources, so their collective improvement signifies broader progress, according to the association. Continued investment in clean water programs for wastewater, agriculture and urban stormwater, it added, has yielded direct improvements in pollution controls, which have helped to improve the overall health of the river.
“The State of the James demonstrates a strong correlation between funding by Virginia in clean water programs and the health of the James River. The recent historic level of investments in wastewater and agricultural pollution controls are already paying dividends for the millions of Virginians who rely on the James River,” said Nathan Thomson, Lead Policy Advocate for JRA. “The more we invest in the river, the greater the improvement in river health and benefits to the community.”
Unfortunately, American shad, the report’s first ever 0% indicator as of 2021, still remains in a critical state, JRA noted. Upon the urging of JRA and partners, Virginia’s General Assembly has allocated funding toward the creation of a recovery plan for American shad, and a recovery plan is due to the General Assembly next month.
A recent stock assessment conducted by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission found that coastwide populations of American shad were depleted, and monitoring by the Virginia Institute of Marine Science (VIMS) has found that American shad abundances in the James River are at an all-time low, JRA said.
“The conservation and management of American shad in the rivers of Virginia will take a continued and coordinated effort by multiple partners to address both direct and indirect pressures on this species,” stated Dr. Eric Hilton of VIMS. VIMS will be submitting a report to the General Assembly in November detailing the threats to the shad population in the James River and recommending actions that need to be taken to evaluate these threats and stem the decline.
“To save this iconic species and other migratory fish in the James, Virginia must take swift action to address the threats identified in the American shad recovery plan,” stated Tom Dunlap, James Riverkeeper. “We cannot let such an important part of our river ecosystem, our history and our culture disappear from the James River.”