Every two years the James River Association releases its assessment of the health of the James River watershed — the State of the James. The conservation group looks at 20 indicators to come up with a composite score and a letter grade from A to F. Today the JRA released its 2013 assessment with press conferences in Richmond, Lynchburg and Newport News. I attended the Richmond event at the Intermediate Terminal, across the river from Ancarrow’s Landing. The takeaway: little to no progress in reducing sediment pollution over the past 20 years has begun to overshadow headway in other areas of the river’s ecosystem and water quality – “areas where the state has made significant investments over the past few years,” the report said.
Only two indicators met or exceeded goals the JRA set after the 2011 report: the bald eagle population and wastewater treatment pollution reduction. The report gave sediment pollution reduction the lowest score — just 4 percent. The biggest falling indicator was for American shad, which was down 21 percent over 2011 levels, and the biggest improvement was in wastewater treatment pollution reduction, which has received substantial state investment and, as a result, climbed 22 percent in the past two years.
Overall, America’s founding river was given a grade of “C” and a 53 percent rating, up two points from two years ago.
“We see progress where Virginia has really made a significant commitment or investment, most specifically in wastewater treatment,” said JRA CEO Bill Street. “It’s up 22 percent because of the investment Virginia has made. We’ve seen that lead to reductions in nitrogen and phosphorous levels in the river as a whole. That’s very encouraging to show that where we make that level of investment we see some marked improvement.”
The state has put about $1.5 billion toward improving wastewater treatment in the James watershed over the past 10 years. But, as Street explained, that has been a kind of low-hanging fruit. Sediment pollution is every bit the threat to the health of the James and reducing will be more difficult without significant commitment from the state and localities.
“Sediment pollution reductions were down two points,” Street said. “Over 20 years there is no sign that we’re making progress in sediment reduction.”
The two major sources of sediment in our streams (which eventually reach the James) are agriculture and urban/suburban runoff.
“Agriculture presents the greatest opportunity now to improve the health of the river,” Street said. “Those practices don’t cost as much. But if we don’t address those urban sources, it would wipe out all the progress we’ve made. Because we continue to develop and grow, and as we pave over natural areas, it completely alters how water moves through the James River system and causes a lot of stream bank erosion. And there are signs that stream channel erosion is a major source of sediment going into the James River.”
Click here to read the entire State of the James report.