Saturday, December 2, 2023

James River water quality tracker lets swimmers, boaters know when water is unsafe

The Jamestown River is a popular destination for summer fun in the water. (WYDaily/Courtesy James City County)
The James River is a popular destination for summer fun in the water. (WYDaily/Courtesy of James City County)

Running across the state, the James River is a popular and historic spot for recreation.

During the warm months — and sometimes the cooler ones as well — Virginians and visitors flock to the banks of the river to swim, boat and fish. 

While the James is not always crystal clear, it’s still safe for recreation, most of the time. In the last six years, about 85 percent of water quality samples have shown the James is safe for recreation.

The other 15 percent showed high levels of bacteria, especially after it rained.

The James River Association has an online tool to help people enjoy the river safely, called the James River Watch, according to a news release from the association. 

“The James River is an amazing resource and a great place to cool off during the summer,” said Ben Watson, staff scientist for the James River Association. “The James and other local waterways are safe for swimming and boating the vast majority of the time, but river-goers should use extra caution after heavy rain.”

Since 2013, James River Association trained volunteers have ventured out to popular recreational spots along the 340-mile-long river to collect water samples. The tests happen every weekend between Memorial Day and Labor Day.

Those interested in swimming or going out on the James are encouraged to check the river watch website before going — just in case.

Test results are posted on the James River Watch website after they are verified for quality assurance. The website gives real-time information to swimmers and boaters about river conditions, including temperature, cloudiness and E. coli bacteria levels.

The website also includes information on quality in James River tributaries.

Over the last six years, James River Association tests have found the river was safe for boating in 85 percent of about 2,000 water samples. The water samples showing water was unsafe were mostly after rain events, when runoff includes bacteria from urban stormwater and agricultural areas.

“Monitoring data demonstrate that bacteria levels increase after rainstorms, and that stronger stormwater controls are needed,” said Jamie Brunkow, riverkeeper and senior advocacy manager at the James River Association. “To ensure that the James River is protected for swimming, fishing, and boating, we need to strengthen and adequately fund state and local programs to address polluted stormwater runoff from our cities, towns and farms.”

For more information on James River Watch, contact Ben Watson, staff scientist, at or 804-839-3046.

Sarah Fearing
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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