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Natural Awakenings Richmond

The James River Matters

Jan 29, 2021 11:24AM ● By Anna Killius
The James River

Protecting Public Health and Environment in a Pandemic

Resilience was the word used to describe the James River in the 2019 State of the James report. After the heavy rains the year before, the river proved resilient, suffering infusions of polluted water and bouncing back in a way that would have been impossible just a decade ago. In some ways, it was a pause in the progress toward a fully restored, grade-A James. But it was also proof positive that the James is changing for the better.

Resilience is something we need now more than ever. At this time last year, conservation advocates were poised to secure a major victory: a state budget with bold investments in a better future for the natural resources we all share. It included more than $200 million for initiatives that deliver cleaner water to our local streams and rivers on their way to the bay. It helped turn back the clock on years of cuts to underfunded programs that monitor the environmental health of our communities and enforce environmental protections against bad actors. It invested in better community outreach to address decades of environmental injustice and disparity.

At that time, Virginia’s economic outlook was strong, as was the commitment to meeting Chesapeake Bay goals by 2025 and securing cleaner air, land and water for every community in the Commonwealth. But with the unprecedented challenge of a global pandemic, lawmakers paused all new spending to prepare for difficult fiscal decisions ahead. While funding for many natural resources programs was maintained, new money for monitoring, enforcement and community outreach was permanently cut.

Preparing for the 2021 general assembly, state leaders must remember that our environment helps keep communities resilient. Protecting our air, land and water comes with holistic benefits that promote public health and economic recovery in some of Virginia’s hardest-hit communities.

Natural resource funding supports local jobs. Every dollar invested in putting conservation practices in place on farmland can generate $1.56 in economic activity here in our state, helping to recapitalize farms and bolster our food supply system. Funding for stormwater and wastewater improvements creates local full-time infrastructure jobs.

Natural resource funding also protects our physical health and mental well-being. Healthy communities need access to clean air and clean water. This has never been more apparent than during a pandemic, when handwashing and preexisting pulmonary conditions play such critical roles in our survival. And when indoor gatherings are off-limits, many of us have looked to the outdoors and our accessible green spaces for refuge and peace of mind.

Furthermore, natural resource funding moves us forward toward addressing environmental injustices suffered by low-income communities and communities of color which have disproportionately faced the impacts of polluted air and water while lacking safe green spaces to enjoy. Failing to redress these disparities will only increase the adverse health impacts these communities are experiencing during this public health crisis and perpetuate environmental racism in our Commonwealth.

Anna Killius is a policy analyst for the JJames River Association. Join the Action Network and register to become a RiverRep at