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James River Health Grade Improves But More Work To Do

AP Photo/Steve Helber, File

The health of the James River watershed continues to improve and is significantly better than it was ten years ago.  That new assessment was released Thursday morning by the James River Association.

The association gave the river's health a B- grade for 2017.  That is up slightly from the last assessment in 2015. It is significantly higher than when the association began issuing its "State of the James" reports ten years ago.

Association CEO Bill Street says much of the improvement is the result of new pollution controls. "Since 2005, Virginia has invested over 1.3 billion dollars, which has also been matched by local and private dollars to control pollution going into the James River and other waters of the state," Street told reporters. "The vast majority of that money has gone to wastewater treatment upgrades and as a result we have attained 118 percent of the needed pollution reductions in wastewater going into the James River."

Street says more needs to be done to control agricultural and storm water pollution to improve from this year’s grade of B-minus.  That will be especially important as population growth puts more stress on wastewater treatment facilities, he says.  Pollution reduction was the lowest scoring set of indicators in the 2017 report. Most violations in the category are related to heavy precipitation weather events that lead to sewage overflows and agricultural and construction runoff.  Street said sediment reductions are still well below the targets set for cleanup of the Chesapeake Bay.

The association found significant improvements in fish and wildlife populations since the 2015 assessment, especially in small mouth bass and oysters.  There was a puzzling decline in underwater grasses, though.  Street says experts are trying to figure out the cause.

The association says the James is Virginia's largest source of drinking water, serving some 2.7 million people.

Street noted the long-term improvement of the watershed.  It's improved ten points in the ten years since the association issued its first report. "When you think back 40 years and the state of the James at that point we estimate to be in the low D’s.  The James River had been shut down due to kepone contamination and was really considered one of the most polluted rivers in the whole country," Street remembered. 

The potential construction of natural gas pipelines in Virginia could pose a threat to the river’s health in future years. "With the amount of land that will be cleared and the amount of stream crossings," Street said, "there’s a great risk that it could generate a lot of sediment pollution.  And that, in turn, could lead to poorer scores in the future." 

Click here to read the full 2017 State of the James report