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Heavy rainfall is carrying more pollution into the James River

Flooded woods
Crixell Matthews
The James River rushes by a flooded gazebo after heavy rain hit Richmond in November 2020. (Photo: Crixell Matthews/VPM News)

The James River’s overall health has dipped slightly over the past two years, according to the 2021 State of the James report card. The report credits much of that slide to increased toxic runoff from abnormally heavy rainfall in the watershed, particularly in 2018. It also says the river is showing signs of resilience thanks to certain protections.

The assessment has been published every other year since 2007 by the James River Association. Since a high of 63% in 2017, the score has dropped to 61%, losing one percentage point in each report year. That’s recorded as a B- by the Association.

The association’s policy manager, Anna Killius, works with lawmakers in an effort to get the score up. She says heavier rainfalls have “really flushed a lot of pollution downstream into the James,” creating a setback for river health.

Virginia has seen an uptick in the number of particularly severe storms in recent years, which is likely attributable to changes in local climate. That change is a function of human-caused greenhouse gas emissions, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

In a blog post, Science Museum of Virginia climate scientists explain that warmer air, a result of climate change, can simply hold more water. And what goes up often comes down all at once, or in a half-hour deluge. That can be too much for localities with too few greenspaces and dated wastewater systems, like Richmond.

The rainfall picks up all sorts of waste, specifically nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment pollution, and it all gets washed into the river if localities don’t prevent it.

Those protections are laid out in phase three of Virginia’s Watershed Implementation Plan, published in 2019. Lawmakers have started funding protections like updating local wastewater systems  and supporting farmers in adopting best management practices.​​

Killius says the past work and funding does have an effect, despite the lower overall score.  The overall score measures a number of indicators, and some have stayed stable or even improved since 2019, showing a level of resilience developing in the ecosystem.

“If we give it an opportunity to kind of bounce back from storms like that and rainfall like that, it will,” Killius said. “If we do our part.”

She says Virginia is actually in a pretty good position to reduce pollution.  The state adopted some planning for future climate change in the third phase of the Watershed Implementation Plan, acknowledging that our region will change in a variety of ways.

“We know that it is already at a higher bar, it’s asking more of us as a commonwealth,” Killius said. She’ll be asking lawmakers this coming January to fully fund the plan.

The General Assembly session is still over a month away, so specific policies and funding allocations are being worked out. Killius is optimistic though, since a portion of Virginia’s revenue surplus is earmarked specifically for water protections. She says it’s possible that the farmer training program could get full funding for the first time ever.

Virginia has until 2025 to fully implement the phase three watershed plan. 

Patrick Larsen is VPM News' environment and energy reporter, and fill-in host.
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