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“Like every river, it's got a personality:” Preparation Key to Safety on James

Clara Haizlett reported this story

Each summer, visitors flock to the banks of the James River - to swim, paddle and cool off on Virginia’s largest river. But experts say it’s important to be aware of the risks involved with recreation on the river.

Andy Thompson is one of the owners of Riverside Outfitters, an outdoor adventure company based in Richmond. Thompson says the James River is an “amazing resource,” but one that has to be treated with respect.

“Like every river, it's got a personality, and it changes all the time,” he said.

Thompson says water levels are one key element that affects the river’s ‘personality,’ particularly this time of year, as spring rain can cause sudden fluctuations in river height and water speed.

Thompson says people can get stranded on islands they reached earlier in the day, when water levels were lower. Life jackets are required by law when water levels exceed 5 ft. at the Richmond-Westham gauge, near the Huguenot Bridge, but even with a jacket, it may not be possible to swim back safely. In 2020, the Richmond Fire Department responded to 77 water rescues.

Thompson says it’s also important that people are aware of water and air temperatures, especially in late spring and early summer.

“The water is still very cold and even if it’s a warm day, you can't really account for how your body and your brain are going to react,” Thompson said.

According to the National Center for Cold Water Safety, people can become hypothermic in water as warm as 60 or 70 degrees.

Residents can check the river level, water temperature and air temperature on Twitter and Instagram by following an account called “How’s the James,” @howsthejamesrva. It’s a project managed by Riverside Outfitters and the James River Association that provides daily updates on the status of the river. 

The river association also runs the “ James River Watch,”  a program which compiles site-specific data, such as bacteria levels, at 36 stations along the river from Buchanan to Williamsburg. Depending on the results, each location is ranked according to safety levels of fair, caution or high caution.

Erin Reilly, the JRA staff scientist, manages the program. She says the purpose of the system is to help people know if it’s safe to get in the water at a specific location.

“If you're in Richmond and you're thinking, ‘Oh, I'm going to go swimming down at Rocketts Landing,’ and then you see Rocketts Landing tested not great, maybe you might choose to go up to Pony Pasture instead,” Reilly said.

Every Thursday from Memorial Day through Labor Day, trained volunteers with the James River Association test the river for E. Coli bacteria at multiple sites. Reilly says E. Coli bacteria indicates if there is raw sewage in the water, which can happen during what’s called a “combined sewer overflow.”

The city of Richmond has a combined sewer system, which is designed to collect stormwater and wastewater in the same pipe. Most of the time, the stormwater and wastewater remain separate. During heavy rains, however, the system can fill up with too much water, discharging the excess flow - including stormwater, street debris and untreated sewage - directly into the river.

“I've been out on the river when a late-breaking afternoon thunderstorm comes in and people are still going in the water,” Reilly said. “And I'm racing to try to get out of the water.”

Grace LeRose, policy advisor at the Richmond Department of Public Utilities, says although Richmond has 24 active outfalls, only some of these locations regularly overflow. The biggest outfall location is close to the 14th Street bridge in Shockoe Bottom, which is also a takeout site for boaters.

Officials at DPU say the city has made changes to the system over the years and is continuing  efforts to reduce the impact of combined sewer overflows. But these events still occur, and residents are advised to stay clear of CSO locations for at least 48 hours after a heavy rain.  The city also offers an alert service for overflow events.

LeRose says visitors to the James can play a role in keeping the river safe for each other, too. The city recently launched a campaign called “No trash where we splash,” an initiative to clean up the waterways. She encourages people to leave nothing behind - no trash, no glass - during outings to the James River.

To learn more about safety precautions on the James, go to

VPM News is the staff byline for articles and podcasts written and produced by multiple reporters and editors.