The Blog Squad

Monday, June 11, 2007

"What's in the Water?" Revisited

In early May, Ralph White, the director of the city of Richmond’s James River Parks system, told me that about 65,000 people per month visited the river parks last summer, according to a survey.

Because it’s such a recreational magnet is partly what motivated us to do a feature in our June edition on the health of the James. The feature is titled “What’s in the Water?” and hit the stands a couple weeks ago.

Another reason for this piece was to coincide roughly with the James River Association’s release today of the “State of the James” report. The report looks at several indicators of the river’s overall health. — fish and wildlife populations, the amount and quality of natural habitat, the amount of pollution in the water, and the efforts to protect and restore the river.

Just before the river report was due out, Bill Street, the JRA’s executive director, gave me a brief preview and said he expected the James River to receive something like a “C” grade overall — not great but not dismal; alive and relatively healthy, but with a lot of room for improvement. (You should be able to get a PDF of the report soon at the JRA’s Web site.)

In general, Street says, there has been a steady rebound in some of the wildlife and fish in the James. Bald eagles and osprey have begun to thrive again, and rockfish populations are strong, he says. Other aquatic life — namely freshwater oysters — are struggling, he says.

And check out this fact: Those oysters are like nature’s own Brita filters. Each oyster can filter 40 to 50 gallons of river water a day. But they’re in short supply because the river bottom habitat is silted over in many spots.

For that feature. I spent a little time on the water, in the tidal section of the James near Hopewell, with Street, and the JRA’s riverkeeper, Chuck Frederickson. I also interviewed a handful of people who have either a professional or personal interest in the health of the water flowing down the James.

As we floated along the current, Street and Frederickson both gave me some perspective on how much we’ve changed the river since Capt. John Smith arrived at the mouth of the James in the 1600s. Back then, the JRA guys told me, Smith’s ship logs record that the oyster banks were so thick with oysters that they were navigation hazards. And the water was so clear that the ship mates could see the vessel's anchor on the river bottom in 40 feet of water.

Today, in spots, Frederickson is lucky to be able to see one meter (a little more than three feet) into the water. And that’s just the minimum standard for water clarity — if you can see something in the water a meter deep, then that should allow enough light through to the underwater grasses that are prime habitat for aquatic wildlife.

Our story contains the meat of the issue with the James — that although pollution controls have largely succeeded in cleaning up the river, daily human and animal impacts continue to send tons of waste, sediment and chemicals downstream.

The state, of course, has mandated upgrades in water treatment facilities throughout the state by 2011. And as Street told me in May, counties and cities along the James are slowly moving to development policies that take the river watershed into account.

Says, Dick McElfish, the director of environmental engineering for Chestefield County: “We’re looking at how we can reduce impervious areas, meaning roads, and all the runoff and how we can increase natural areas above and beyond what we’re currently doing.” He says the county has no formal effort yet to require what’s called low-impact design. “It’s not a requirement yet. It’s just a buzz word.”

As our story mentions, some localities are aggressively pursing these low-impact policies. Regionally, Street says, New Kent County has made notable efforts to pair its rapid growth with sound watershed management.

In Richmond, the most notable recent development is Councilwoman Kathy Graziano’s proposal to create a conservation easement along the James in the city limits.

With JRA’s press conference today announcing the "State of the James" report, you can expect to hear more about river’s health and preservation in coming days and weeks. —Jack Cooksey


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