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Natural Awakenings Richmond

James River Stable, but Threatened

Jan 01, 2022 01:11PM ● By Erin Reilly

The James River Association (JRA) released their biennial report card in November, The State of the James, with data based on 18 indicators across the categories of river health and river restoration progress. The grade for the James has remained in the B-minus range since 2015, but the overall 2021 score of 61 percent dropped one point from 2019, and two points since the recent high of 63 percent.

CEO Bill Street says, “While the James has made tremendous progress since its failing health in the 1970s, to continue making progress and meet Virginia’s goals for the James in the face of increased population, climate change and other new threats will take greater urgency and commitment.”

The decline that has occurred since 2017 reflects the impact of abnormally high rainfall experienced across the watershed in recent years causing increased polluted runoff throughout the James. While oysters and tidal water quality showed promising resilience over the past year by bouncing back from the surge of rainwater and pollution, the river also revealed stalled progress in phosphorus, nitrogen and sediment pollution reductions, as well as stream health.

Anna Killius, government affairs and policy manager, advises, “We see that the river can bounce back (from polluted runoff) if given the chance, but the increased amount and intensity of rainfall associated with climate change means we cannot delay needed investments.”

This year was the first time Virginia has fully funded programs to address polluted runoff from agricultural fields and development, but full funding must continue to meet the challenges ahead.

The most alarming indicator belongs to American shad, which fell to an all-time low, giving the State of the James its first ever zero percent indicator. Often referred to as the “founding fish” because of their historical and cultural significance, American shad face an overwhelming combination of threats, including dam blockage, water withdrawals, invasive catfish and lack of underwater grasses for shelter.

“America’s founding fish is on the brink of collapse on America’s Founding River,” states Jamie Brunkow, James RIVERKEEPER and Sr. Advocacy Manager for the JRA. “We are calling on Virginia to develop an emergency recovery plan to ensure that this storied and crucial fish remains a part of the James River ecosystem and our communities for generations to come.”

To help the JRA secure future clean water funding, consider signing up to raise your voice for the river at

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