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Natural Awakenings Richmond

Keep the James River Comeback Alive

by Anna Killius

The James River, America’s founding river, was selected as the 2019 Thiess International Riverprize winner by the International River Foundation at the International Riversymposium, in Brisbane, Australia. This is the most coveted award in river management, recognizing remarkable outcomes for rivers, river basins and their communities.

Virginians have long known that the James River is a treasure for our Commonwealth. It has provided nourishment to native American communities for thousands of years, a home to the first permanent English settlement in North America and training ground for many of our nation’s founders. Today, one out of every three Virginians rely on the James for safe drinking water, economic opportunity and quality of life.

But for years, we took our river for granted, such that by 1975 it ranked among the nation’s most polluted, contaminated by the neurotoxin Kepone, industrial wastewater and sewage. In response, community members used their voices to change the James for the better. Over the last 40 years, we have witnessed a remarkable comeback, thanks to environmental protections like the Clean Water Act and the Chesapeake Bay Agreement, strong commitment from the Commonwealth and local governments, and the hard work of farmers, businesses and communities.

We should be proud to share this story of stewardship through hard work, cooperation and common ground, but we can’t lose sight of the fact that the story is not yet over; we must keep the comeback coming. This fall, the James River Association reported that the overall health of the river remained a B-minus, a sign of resilience in the face of record rainfall last year, but a slowdown of our overall progress. Fortunately, we know what we need to do to stay on track for a grade-A James.

Virginia’s Chesapeake Bay cleanup plan sets out a path for restoring Chesapeake Bay tributaries, including the James River. It calls on everyone to pitch in and do their part to reduce pollution from wastewater, agricultural runoff and stormwater by 2025. Now we need Virginia’s Governor and General Assembly to pass a budget that fully funds the plan and invests in our localities, our farmers and our wastewater utilities as we all work together to restore clean water. We can keep the comeback coming by investing in a fully healthy James now and for the future.

Anna Killius is a policy analyst with the James River Association. For more information, visit