Safe areas to swim in the James River

By Andrew Freiden - bio | email

RICHMOND, VA (WWBT) - There is good news for fans of the James River. A large chunk has been removed from the impaired list. That means it's safe to swim. But there is still a lot of work to be done before the river is truly clean.

"Earlier this decade, 16 miles from Mayo's Island to the Henrico county line didn't meet standards. It really wasn't safe for swimming," said Alan Pollock from the Virginia Department Of Environmental Quality.

But things have improved. A recent report shows the river is not impaired west of the Boulevard Bridge. That's good news for swimmers. But below the Boulevard Bridge, fecal coliform levels aren't low enough to be declared safe.

"If you go in the river, and swim, and swallow water, especially after a storm event, the health department advises against doing that," said Pollock.

There are no reports of illnesses from swimming in the James but if you do drink the water it could be unpleasant.

"Intestinal sickness, upset stomach, diarrhea that kind of thing," Pollock said.

So what is causing high fecal bacteria levels? One part of the problem is Richmond's combined sewers. In heavy rainstorms, raw sewage can be flushed into the river. This rarely happens anymore as the system has been cleaned up.

"We are making incremental improvements!" Pollock said.

Other, more consistent sources? Cow manure from farms west of town washes into the water. And a source that looks awfully cute, Canada geese. But don't feed those geese! What comes out the other end is bad for your health!

And that third source of bacteria comes from streets, neighborhoods just like yours and mine, a lot ends up in the Powhite Creek, and Reedy Creek.

A good rule of thumb if you want to go swimming? Avoid the water just after it rains. That's when all the harmful bacteria gets washed into the water.

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