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Natural Awakenings Richmond

Ensuring Safety for All on the James River

Apr 28, 2022 10:22PM ● By Erin Reilly

Every year as the weather starts to warm up and summer begins, the James River Association (JRA) runs a water quality monitoring program called James River Watch to help river-goers answer the question, “Is it safe to swim in the James?” JRA began testing through the James River Watch program in 2013 with 10 initial sites, and has increased testing to the 36 sites they use today thanks to the help of volunteers and partnerships with the Rivanna Conservation Alliance, Peninsula Master Naturalists, Virginia State University, American Water, the Appomattox River Company, Twin River Outfitters and Riverside Outfitters. 

Each Thursday from Memorial Day to Labor Day, JRA relies on a team of volunteers and partners to test the water at sites across the James River watershed before the weekend. To evaluate safety conditions, volunteers test for temperature and bacteria levels and this information is displayed along with river level information pulled from the National Weather Service on an interactive map. By clicking any station on the map, both current and past levels from previous weeks can be viewed for each of the different variables. Volunteers also test the turbidity (cloudiness) and conductivity (saltiness) of the sites as well. 

These important testing measures are key for staying safe on the water. If the river level is very high, the current could be too strong for swimming and paddling or a life jacket may be required. If the river level is too low, swimming and paddling might be prohibited for different reasons (or it might just be less fun). Water temperature can also impact safety because hypothermia can be a risk when the combined air and water temperature is less than 100, even if the air feels warm. Another safety concern is bacteria, as swimming or paddling in water with high levels has been shown to increase the number of gastrointestinal hospitalizations. These higher bacterial levels typically take place after a rainstorm, when runoff can cause an excess of nutrients or food for the bacteria to wash into the river, allowing their populations to grow. 

In 2021, the overall bacteria pass rate was 83 percent, which means based on bacteria levels alone it was safe to swim in the river 83 percent of the time JRA tested between Memorial Day and Labor Day. The organization also calculates pass rates for each site, with nine sites across the watershed passing 100 percent of the time during the 2021 season: Scottsville Boat Ramp, Tucker Park at Maidens Crossing, Robious Landing, Pony Pasture, Hopewell at Route 10, Jamestown Beach, College Creek Beach, Riverside Beach and Hampton Marina. 

Erin Reilly is senior staff scientist for the James River Association. For more information, visit