Every two years the James River Association compiles and analyzes data to determine the overall health of the James River. One of the life bloods of our community, the James River is not only home to a diverse ecosystem of underwater grasses and aquatic life, but it’s a vital watershed for our region as the largest drinking water source in the state and the home of one of the largest oyster reefs in the world. The biennial State of the James report was just released, showing that the overall grade for the James River has improved to a “B” with a score of 66 percent, compared to its failing health decades ago.

“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,” said Bill Street, CEO and President for JRA. “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.”

According to the James River Association, the State of the James is essentially a report card for the river, summarizing ongoing efforts to bring the James back to full health. This critical assessment, compiled using data from partners across the watershed, examines the status and trends of eighteen indicators across two categories: River Health and River Restoration Progress. It’s estimated that, in 1976 when the James River Association was founded, the river would have received a D minus grade.

The James River can attribute much of its improved score to the expansion of underwater grasses, which have reached their highest total on record since JRA began collecting data. The State of the James report also documents that tidal water quality has returned to its recent high. Both of these data points are heavily influenced by pollution from upstream sources, so their improvement signals a broader environmental and ecological improvement overall.  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. In its last two-year budget, Virginia appropriated over $600 million each year, which is enough to fully fund the identified need for wastewater and agriculture pollution controls.

“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,” said Nathan Thomson, Lead Policy Advocate for JRA.

“The more we invest in the river, the greater the improvement in river health and benefits to the community.”

In its last two-year budget, Virginia appropriated over $600 million each year, which is enough to fully fund the identified need for wastewater and agriculture pollution controls.

The report, however, still points to critical areas that must be addressed in the near future. When the last report was created in 2021, the American shad, an anadromous clupeid fish native to our waters, had reached a critical state. Because of that report, the JRA and its partners urged the Virginia General Assembly to allocate funding toward an American shad recovery plan. That plan is due to the General Assembly in November 2023. There are many different species of migratory fish that call the James River home including American shad, Atlantic sturgeon, striped bass, blueback herring, alewife, and American eel.

JRA’s findings are backed up by a recent assessment completed by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, which found that coastwide populations of American shad were depleted and that populations 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,” stated Dr. Eric Hilton of VIMS.

According to the Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources, the American shad is considered “America’s Founding Fish” because it was once one of the Atlantic Coast’s most abundant and economically important fish. Shad were an important food source for Indigenous peoples, early colonists, and generations of Virginians. Between 1750 and 1850, commercialized overfishing led to an extreme decline in the American shad population. Not only that, but the creation of dams in the late 19th century depleted the abundance of spawn sites for the species. By the 1980s, a moratorium on American shad harvesting was put in place throughout the Chesapeake area, with a state-wide moratorium put in place by the 1990s.

“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,” stated Tom Dunlap, James Riverkeeper. “We cannot let such an important part of our river ecosystem, our history and our culture disappear from the James River.”

The James River By the Numbers:

Drinking Water – 2.7 million people rely on the James River for water, making it Virginia’s largest source of drinking water.

Seafood Production – 4.1 million pounds of commercial fish and shellfish were landed from the James in 2022, a total dockside value of $11.9 million. The James is home to some of the largest oyster reefs in the world – 754,650 pounds of oysters were

harvested in 2020, a total value of $9.4 million and more than 24% of Virginia’s total oyster harvest.

Riverside Park Visitation – Riverside parks offer opportunities for outdoor recreation and enjoyment. Riverside parks along the James and its tributaries saw over 7 million visitors in calendar years 2021 and 2022.

Public River Access – There are hundreds of places to enjoy the James and its tributaries. At least 52 public access sites have been added in the watershed since 2013.

Hunting, Fishing & Boat Licenses – 539,510 people registered boats and purchased hunting and fishing licenses in the watershed in 2022.

For more information about the various JRA volunteer programs and how you can get involved with improving the health of our river, please visit www.thejamesriver.org/what-you-can-do/.