James River earns a B grade; actions still needed to improve its health

Published 1:33 pm Tuesday, October 31, 2023

The James River Association released its biennial State of the James report Thursday, Oct. 26, showing the overall health of the river at a grade B with a score of 66%. 

The overall grade of the State of the James has improved to a B with a score of 66% from its failing health decades ago, according to a JRA news release. Although the pace of progress has slowed, a grade-A James River is possible if we address key issues. It is estimated that the James River’s health in the 1970’s would have been a D minus.

“The James River has come a long way since JRA was founded in 1976, and is now a prized asset for the communities that surround it, playing an important role in people’s lives everyday,” JRA Chief Executive Officer and President Bill Street said. “While progress has slowed in recent years as the river faces new challenges from climate change, we see signs that a grade A James is possible if we keep up our collective commitment and all do our part to safeguard the river for future generations.”

Subscribe to our free email newsletter

Get the latest news sent to your inbox

JRA’s State of the James is essentially a report card for the river, summarizing ongoing efforts to bring the James back to full health, according to the news release. This critical assessment, compiled using data from partners across the watershed, examines the status and trends of eighteen indicators across two categories of River Health and River Restoration Progress.

In terms of good news for the James, underwater grasses expanded to their highest total on record and tidal water quality also returned to its recent high. Both of these indicators are largely influenced by pollution from upstream sources, so their collective improvement signifies broader progress, JRA explained in the release. Additionally, continued investment in clean water programs for wastewater, agriculture and urban stormwater has yielded direct improvements in pollution controls, which have helped to improve the overall health of the river.

“The State of the James demonstrates a strong correlation between funding by Virginia in clean water programs and the health of the James River. The recent historic level of investments in wastewater and agricultural pollution controls are already paying dividends for the millions of Virginians who rely on the James River,” JRA Lead Policy Advocate Nathan Thomson said. “The more we invest in the river, the greater the improvement in river health and benefits to the community.”

Unfortunately, American shad, the report’s first ever 0% indicator as of 2021, still remains in a critical state. Upon the urging of JRA and partners, Virginia’s General Assembly allocated funding toward the creation of a recovery plan for American shad. The recovery plan is due to the General Assembly next month.

A recent stock assessment conducted by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission found that coastwide populations of American shad were depleted, and monitoring by the Virginia Institute of Marine Science has found that American shad abundances in the James River are at an all-time low.

“The conservation and management of American shad in the rivers of Virginia will take a continued and coordinated effort by multiple partners to address both direct and indirect pressures on this species,” Dr. Eric Hilton of VIMS said.

VIMS will be submitting a report to the General Assembly in November detailing the threats to the shad population in the James River and recommending actions that need to be taken to evaluate these threats and stem the decline, according to the release.

“To save this iconic species and other migratory fish in the James, Virginia must take swift action to address the threats identified in the American shad recovery plan,” James Riverkeeper Tom Dunlap said. “We cannot let such an important part of our river ecosystem, our history and our culture disappear from the James River.”

To learn more about the State of the James, visit stateofthejames.org, or contact Erin Hillert at ehillert@thejamesriver.org or 608-239-2644 to be connected with a member of JRA’s advocacy team.