Despite several decades of improvements, the James River in Virginia is at a “tipping point” and without strong action will again fall into decline, according to a new report.

The nonprofit James River Association, gave the river a grade of “C” in a report card issued in June that averaged the scores of nearly two dozen indicators of river and habitat health.

Overall, it scored 52 on a 100-point scale, with 100 meeting restoration goals set by various agencies or organizations.

“In other words, we are halfway to a healthy river,” said Bill Street, executive director of the association. The James is the third largest tributary to the Bay, after the Susquehanna and Potomac rivers.

While many indicators have been improving, such as bald eagles, which scored 100, and phosphorus levels, which got a 93, Street said the river is threatened by the rapid rate of development.

Polluted runoff remains the largest single threat to the river, and that could worsen as the amount of land that will be developed in the watershed in the next 40 years will surpass the amount developed over the previous 400, according to the group. The watershed’s population is also projected to increase by 1 million to 3.5 million.

“As resilient as this river has proven itself to be over the centuries, it’s difficult to imagine that it will be able to maintain its vitality unless we take concrete steps toward reducing the impacts of development and the effects of polluted runoff,” Street said.

Noting that the state had made significant headway in controlling discharges from wastewater treatment plants, Street said similar actions were needed to manage runoff from developed areas, including stronger stormwater management and erosion control laws and requiring low-impact development policies for new development. Street also said more funding is needed to help farmers reduce polluted runoff.

Fish in the river provide “clear warning signs” that the river’s condition needs to be carefully monitored, he said. Many rockfish in the lower reaches of the river are in poor health, and recent fish kills in the headwaters of the James have affected smallmouth bass, redbreast sunfish and rock bass.

The report card scored indicators that fell into four broad categories:

  • Fish and Wildlife earned a “C” by meeting 52 percent of the goals. That was led primarily by the dramatic rebounds of bald eagles and striped bass, while oysters, American shad and brook trout were far below target levels.
  • Habitat scored a “C” by meeting 53 percent of the goals. The report said that underwater grasses in the river were at only 38 percent of their historic levels, while forested stream buffers were at 73 percent of the goals for the river. The health of tidal waters and headwater streams were just halfway to their goals.
  • Pollution was graded at a “C+” for meeting 56 percent of the goals. It noted that phosphorus had declined steeply in the last two decades, but nitrogen levels in the water remain high, and there is no decline in sediment loads to the river.
  • Protection and Restoration Actions received a “C” for meeting 49 percent of the goals. While wastewater treatment plants were doing a good job upgrading to control nutrients, and some farm pollution control programs had high rates of implementation, other efforts, such as controlling sediment and erosion during construction, lagged.

The full report is available at www.jamesriverassociation.org