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The James River Association’s James River Watch Program Keeps River Users Informed

Approximately 120 volunteers will monitor water quality at 38 sites across the watershed from Memorial Day through Labor Day this year.

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Every Memorial Day since 2013, the James River Association has kicked off their annual water quality monitoring program to help keep swimmers, paddlers, and boaters informed about river conditions before they get on the river.

This program, better known as James River Watch, releases real-time river results to the public on a weekly basis thanks to volunteers and partners across the watershed.

Approximately 120 volunteers will monitor water quality at 38 sites across the watershed from Memorial Day through Labor Day this year. In addition to these crucial volunteers, JRA also relies on essential partnerships with Rivanna Conservation Alliance, American Water, Virginia State University, Virginia Master Naturalist-Peninsula Chapter, Appomattox River Company and Twin River Outfitters to carry out the program.

James River Watch volunteers take water samples every Thursday to track measurements of water temperature, air temperature, turbidity (or cloudiness), conductivity (or saltiness) and bacteria. High levels of fecal coliform bacteria can indicate presence of pathogens harmful to human health, which can affect river user safety.

Photo Credit: James River Association

These measurements are updated and displayed every Friday via the program’s online platform. Additionally, the platform displays stage and flow readings, as well as predictions compiled in real time from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and United States Geological Survey stream gauges.

Thanks to the careful design of the interactive map, James River Watch acts as a quick and easy reference for river users to determine recent river conditions all in one place. This year, JRA has added two new stations to the River Watch program: one at the Howardsville boat ramp where the Rockfish River meets the James, and one at Deep Bottom Park in Henrico County.

River lovers can be the first to know when results are posted every Friday by signing up for a weekly newsletter, typically sent on Friday afternoons or evenings throughout James River Watch season. The newsletter also includes a weekly station spotlight, highlighting JRA’s test stations and encouraging recipients to find new places to enjoy the James.

“We are very excited to continue James River Watch with another year of informing community members about river conditions before they go out to recreate,” said Casey Johnson, Community Engagement/GIS Coordinator for JRA. “I have so much gratitude to our amazing volunteers that help make this program possible.”

During the 2022 river season, James River Watch revealed an 80% bacteria pass rate with 6 sites passing 100% of the time. These sites include Robious Landing Park, Pony Pasture, Hopewell at Route 10, College Creek Beach, and Riverside Beach.

JRA staff has been concerned with the high bacteria levels at two sites in the Williamsburg/James City County region.  In 2021 and 2022, JRA worked with the Hampton Roads Sanitation District (HRSD) to test the water for a marker found in human sewage in an effort to understand why the bacteria levels might be high. The results showed that it was unlikely to be the result of human sewage, which is good news.  Bacteria sources that are closer to humans are more likely to be a threat to health. In 2023, JRA is working again with HRSD to use environmental DNA (eDNA) to try to identify the source of the high bacteria levels.

JRA strives to protect and connect people with the river, objectives that James River Watch certainly accomplishes. JRA also provides opportunities for river lovers to help reduce the amount of bacteria flowing to our waterways. Community members can sign up to join River Hero Homes by pledging to adopt easy, river-friendly behaviors at home. JRA’s Action Network provides a platform for river advocates to help secure clean water funding, and river rats can become an official RiverRat, JRA’s first line of defense for patrolling potential pollution sources.

The James River Watch program is partially funded by the Department of Environmental Quality Citizen Water Quality Monitoring Grant Program.

To learn more about James River Watch, visit www.jamesriverwatch.org, or contact Casey Johnson, JRA’s Community Engagement/GIS Coordinator at [email protected].

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Richard Hayes is the co-founder of RVAHub. When he isn't rounding up neighborhood news, he's likely watching soccer or chasing down the latest and greatest board game.