JAMES CITY COUNTY — Last Thursday, the James River Association (JRA) released data from their 2020 river season, during which 57 volunteers spent 560 hours collecting 462 bacteria samples at 28 sites across 10,000-square-miles of the watershed.
Of those 28 sites, eight had passing rates of 100%. One outlier was the Powhatan Creek, which had the lowest passing rate at 25%.
“What this means is that our tests found that bacteria levels were higher than the EPA [Environmental Protection Agency] threshold,” said Erin Reilly, staff scientist for JRA.
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The type of bacteria these tests look for is Enterococcus bacteria, the kind that lives in the intestines of warm-blooded animals. The most commonly known is E Coli.
For the past few months, the amount of enterococcus bacteria found in the Powhatan Creek have fluctuated around 500 Colony Forming units per 100 mL.
Because of the high levels seen at Powhatan Creek, JRA has added two testing sites around College Creek. According to the dashboard from James River Watch, both testing sites at College Landing Park and the Chickahominy River also have high bacteria levels.
So what’s causing the high bacteria levels?
“We don’t have a specific cause pinned down, yet,” Reilly said. Higher bacteria levels are usually found at testing sites after rainfall, in which runoff from the land can sweep pathogens into the water.
Other possible culprits include geese, people not picking up after their dogs, or a potential sewage leak.
While the JRA has not found any sewage influx, JRA is working with James City County and the Hampton Roads Sanitation District to investigate the cause.
But is it still safe to do recreational activities in the James?
High levels of fecal coliform bacteria can indicate presence of pathogens harmful to human health, making recreational activities like swimming a potential health hazard.
Reilly said that she would feel comfortable doing activities like kayaking or boating, “But it really depends on your comfort level. People should still be aware.”
In the meantime, while James City County and JRA work to find the source of the bacteria, there are steps local residents can take to help improve the overall health of the waterways.
River Hero Homes is a pledge residents can make to equip their homes and properties to better accommodate the James River and all its estuaries.
“Simple things like planting native plants and collecting rainwater can make a big difference,” Reilly said.