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Dedicated effort turns James River from trashed to treasured

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Bill Street, CEO of the James River Association, said the river’s recovery from a much-polluted past has been remarkable, but work remains to be done. The association works both to improve water quality and help more people develop a personal connection to the river.

For a generation, when Richmond residents said they were going “to the river,” they weren’t talking about the James River that bisects the heart of Virginia’s capital city, roaring over hulking rocks and under bridges. They were planning a drive to the Rappahannock or Potomac, rivers that through much of the ’60s and ’70s were less beset by pollution than their local waterway.

But, after decades of work and regulation to clean up “America’s Founding River,” the stigma has begun to fade. While still in need of continued work, the river is becoming prized for its recreational offerings and resources as much as for its history. (The explorer Capt. John Smith first wrote about these waters after traversing them as far as Richmond in the 1600s, encountering native communities that had thrived along the shoreline for thousands of years.)

In 2012, when Outside magazine named Richmond America’s best river town, it referenced residents’ relationships with the James. And, late last year, the James River received its biggest accolade yet: the top Riverprize from the International River Foundation at a gala in Australia.

Over the last 20 years, the award has recognized the Danube River in Eastern Europe, the Thames River in England and the Charles River in Boston. The foundation said its decision to honor the James was a nod to its transformation “from one of the most polluted in the country to one of the most improved.”

Bill Street, who received the Riverprize as CEO of the James River Association, agreed that the river he’s focused on for the last 15 years has come a long way. But there’s still work to be done to return it to full health — and to get local residents to fully embrace its charms.

Now, “when people say they’re going to the river, we want that to be the James River,” he said.

Disaster spurs action

The 348-mile-long James River is contained entirely in Virginia, winding from its headwaters in Botetourt County north of Roanoke through Lynchburg and then Richmond. The river seems in no hurry once it’s left the state capital, making lazy oxbow turns south of the city that were shortened by cut-throughs carved by Union soldiers. From there, the James balloons and constricts, like a snake swallowing its prey, as it curves past Charles City, Jamestown and Williamsburg before reaching Newport News, Hampton and Norfolk and spilling into the Chesapeake Bay.

Kayakers enjoy a serene section of the James River with the dramatic backdrop of the Richmond skyline.

Forty-five years ago, an environmental disaster made the James River nationally synonymous with pollution.

In 1975, investigators found that an insecticide called Kepone, which had given workers troubling symptoms such as tremors, had been discharged for nearly a decade into the James River. There, state officials found the ant-killing chemical, also known as chlordecone, had been accumulating in the river’s sediment and in fish tissue. Kepone was later classified as a likely carcinogen that persists in the environment for years.

The disaster, covered by Dan Rather in a 60 Minutes episode, became the local equivalent of the Cuyahoga River catching on fire in Ohio. It was a turning point for an industrial swath of the river where, as Rather said, pollution had become “a way of life” for many of the chemical companies located on its shores.

The entire tidal portion of the river — from Richmond to the Bay — was shut down to all fishing except catch-and-release.

Street, who grew up in Richmond and returned after a decade at the Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s Annapolis office, said he didn’t know of any other river with the kinds of restrictions the James had at the time. The fishing ban that began in the mid-1970s lasted for 13 years, costing many their livelihoods and leaving a legacy that would be hard for the river to overcome.

But the national attention the Kepone disaster garnered also fueled budding environmental activism in Virginia and helped spur the passage of national legislation to regulate toxic chemicals.

“It truly was one of the most polluted rivers in the whole country,” Street said. “So, it’s an incredible story that, now, it’s home to one of the highest concentrations of bald eagles, some of the strongest sturgeon populations and that it means what it does to the communities. It’s pretty amazing.”

In 1976, one year after the Kepone investigation, a group of concerned citizens formed the James River Association. Kepone was one of many reasons they organized, but not the only one. Growing environmental concerns were birthing river groups across the country in the wake of the passage of the Clean Water Act in 1972, and local action helped point the James toward a cleaner future.

45 years of change

A James River advocate from the ’50s and ‘60s might have helped to pave the way for such legislation and the benefits it brought for the James.

Newton Ancarrow had a prominent boat-building business in Richmond, selling luxury speedboats to patrons such as the shipping tycoon Aristotle Onassis. But test-driving fancy boats on a dirty river — chemicals in the water once reportedly stripped the paint off a boat’s hull — turned Ancarrow into one of the river’s early champions.

Rafting is now a popular way to experience the James River in Richmond.

At the time, Richmond’s combined sewer and stormwater system routinely dumped billions of gallons of raw sewage into the river when heavy rains overwhelmed its treatment plant. To demonstrate his point that the river had become the city’s dumping grounds, the Richmond Times-Dispatch reported, Ancarrow once appeared before the city council with a jarful of the James that included a condom and a dead rat.

Ancarrow eventually teamed up with Ralph Nader in a suit to force President Richard Nixon to release billions of dollars that had been appropriated to upgrade wastewater treatment plants.

“As I understand it, that lawsuit was one of the things that led to the passage of the Clean Water Act,” Street said.

Because of population centers that drain into the James watershed, the river receives about 70% of the state’s wastewater discharge, Street said. That’s one of the factors that left it more soiled than others by midcentury. But it also stood to benefit more from the Clean Water Act, which established permits and standards for wastewater discharge.

But the James River still routinely received sewage-tainted stormwater through combined sewer systems, a costlier, more complicated problem to address. More recently, the state General Assembly has given the cities of Lynchburg and Richmond grants worth tens of millions of dollars to help overhaul those systems.

Meanwhile, groups like the James River Association — which has grown from five people when Street started to 25 full-time employees — have been chipping away at the river’s recovery for the last 45 years. Five years ago, the organization established a lofty vision for its upcoming 50th anniversary in 2026: a Grade-A, swimmable, fishable river.

“There’s been a renaissance of concern for the James,” said Joe Maroon, executive director of the Virginia Environmental Endowment, a grant-making organization that was created with funds from a settlement after the Kepone catastrophe. “Over the last 40 years, we’ve seen how much people have begun to embrace the James as a connecting river rather than as something that separates. That’s wonderful to see.”

The endowment is managing a $15 million grant program focused on water quality improvements in the James River. So far, nearly $9 million of that fund has helped plant streamside buffers and living shorelines, reduce polluted stormwater runoff and curtail sewage discharges.

Getting there from here

Last year, the river held steady with a B-minus grade in the James River Association’s biennial State of the James report. The report cited progress in reducing sediment and bacteria pollution despite record rains in 2018, when most measurements were taken. Bald eagle and smallmouth bass populations remained strong, but American shad continued to dwindle. Still, compared with the shutdown of river fisheries in the ’70s, the James River’s haul of more than 6 million pounds of seafood worth $21.4 million in 2018 is a dramatic improvement.

“Now, it’s about how do we move from the B-minus we scored in the latest State of the James report to that A?” Street said.

James Riverkeeper Jamie Brunkow collects water samples from the river in Richmond.

As the James River turns a corner from eyesore to resource, advocates have continued changing their tack. In 2012, the river association teamed up with the Chesapeake Conservancy and National Geographic to help people Envision the James. The project, which includes a 360-degree virtual map, focused on promoting heritage tourism and getting people on and along the water.

Also in 2012, the association set a goal to get more people personally connected to the waterway.

The James and its tributaries now offer more than 250 public access points, with almost 40 of them added since 2013. And, the James River Park System that cozies up to the waterway in Richmond saw more visitors than ever, tallying nearly 1.8 million hikers, runners and bikers in 2018.

“I feel like we’re in this interesting period of time where there’s a lot of love for the river,” said James Riverkeeper Jamie Brunkow. “Whereas, 50 years ago, it was where you’d see waste and pollution, today it’s where people go to recreate and have fun.”

Businesses in and around Richmond now see the river as an economic asset, one that brings young-and-hungry kayakers to town and into the city’s bumper crop of breweries. A major cultural shift has occurred since the days when industry saw the river as the fastest way to get waste out of the city.

“What millennials expect now is good jobs in an urban environment with natural resources and clean water,” Brunkow said, summarizing the change.

Now that the river is clean enough to support fishing, boating and even swimming in some areas most of the time, it’s hard to keep reminding residents that there’s still progress to be made.

When asked what a “Grade-A” James River looks like, Brunkow reached for a ski mask-like set of goggles.

“Right now, we’re calling it the James River virtual reality experience,” he said. “This is how we explain to somebody what an A river looks like if they’re already happy with a B.”

Putting on the goggles and pressing “play” cues an underwater tour of the river — not of its length, but of its history. It starts before colonization, a time of underwater abundance: verdant underwater grass and oyster beds, crabs, shad, flounder — and lots of sturgeon. It’s an immersive experience, with fish and grasses on every side and the water’s surface above.

Then the water gets murky and oyster beds and fish begin to disappear as the narrator describes a period of overharvesting and pollution.

Cue the concerned citizens, restoration efforts and pollution reductions, and the scene starts to improve. The video brings the viewer to modern times and into a future with more sparkling grass beds, abundant fish and plenty of people out taking advantage of the water.

“That’s how we answer the question, ‘What would the river look like?’” Street said. “We use this to cast a vision.”

One creature that’s deliberately missing from the vision is the nonnative blue catfish, which has become a top predator in the James River after being introduced in the mid-1970s. Taking its place is the unmistakable Atlantic sturgeon, which has become the mascot of the river’s comeback. Harvested to the brink of extinction in the late 1800s, the prehistoric-looking fish has staged a fragile but steady comeback in the river where in the spring and fall, boaters can now often see them breaching.

Those sorts of comeback stories are a big reason the James landed an international award — which came with $135,000 for the James River Association to continue the work toward its resiliency.

“I think,” Street said, “it was high time a Chesapeake tributary got recognized.”

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