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People floating on the James River

Every Day is Earth Day for Bill Street: Meet the President and CEO of the James River Association, Part 1

Growing up around the Chesapeake Bay, Bill Street’s childhood memories of life near the water are plentiful. Back then, tidal tributaries were not just a source of fun for a young boy; they very often held that night’s dinner. Bill would follow his dad into the shallow waters where snow crabs lurked in the underwater grass beds – life that was far more plentiful than today.

Perhaps it was those reflections – and the later recognition of how fragile and precious our ecosystem is – that propelled Bill to commit to a life of protecting the environment. After 10 years at the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, Bill assumed the reins as president and CEO of the James River Association, a position he has held for 17 years.

As we celebrate Earth Day 2022, we thought it would be a timely idea to catch up with Bill and the JRA.

Bill Street, president and CEO of the James River Association, seen here accepting an award at the 2019 International Riversymposium in Brisbane, Australia.

Richmond Region Tourism tells us that our region’s number one asset – based on attendance and surveys – comes back year after year as the James River. I guess the question is, as much as we love the James, are we giving it all the love that it needs?

Bill: I thought that [the ranking] was impressive, to see that outdoor recreation and the river and the park system was number one for residents.  Pretty amazing. That said, it’s our view that the river needs more love. The only way we’ll get to a fully healthy river is if people who have experienced the river, who have come to love the river, are willing to do their part to take care of it. We expanded our goals in 2013 to set out to make additional progress for the river, but each step becomes more and more difficult than the previous one.

It might be obvious, but what is JRA’s goal?

Bill: Our focus for the past 45 years has been on protecting the James and improving its health, but a compliment to that is another goal, and that’s to connect people to the river and expand public access to it. We’ve opened over 50 new public river access points up and down the river, and that’s a critical function, and it’s truly the only way that we’ll get the level of engagement and support we need to fully achieve our goals.

When you say “fully engaged with the river,” are you talking about taking personal responsibility for people’s interactions with the river or is it a matter of supporting policies that will ultimately help lead to improving its overall health?

Bill: It’s all that really. You have to first understand what affects the river and understand our relationship to it, and that includes everyone who lives around the James and certainly everyone in the Richmond region. We all get our drinking water from the river, and it’s a part of our community, and so we need people to think about the river in how they make individual choices. There are, of course, plenty of opportunities to volunteer and help out.  We like to say “Jump in. Help out” as a way to encourage participation.  But another way to help is simply introducing someone to the river. That’s a key component. We see so many people who come to love the river because a family member or somebody else has introduced them to it, and it becomes a powerful part of their lives. The more we can grow our collective voice in support of the river, the more elected officials will understand that a healthy river is important to a lot of people.

Speaking of elected officials, we would assume that support for a healthy James River is not a partisan issue.

Bill: It’s not. It’s more a matter of how much of a priority legislators place on a clean river versus other issues. The James River is something that’s supported on a bipartisan basis, and so we’ve been able to make progress, regardless of what party has the governor’s mansion or controls the houses of the General Assembly. 

When it comes to the health of the river, JRA does a biannual assessment of the health of the James. Where do things stand now? Where have you seen the biggest areas of improvement, and conversely, where has progress been slower than you have hoped?

Bill: Our biannual report card is called the State of the James, and we’ve been issuing it since 2007, and we’ve seen some really steady progress over the last 10 to 15 years. Things have plateaued a bit, however, which is frustrating. To put it into context: if you remember, in 2018 and 2020, Virginia saw some record amounts of rain, and that washes in a lot of pollution, sediment that can cause major problems for the river. But even with that, the James has been holding its own, which is in and of itself somewhat of an accomplishment. Right now, we’re at a B-minus.

Historically, the river has seen huge improvements, isn’t that right?

Bill: It’s worth pointing out that the James has been rated the healthiest major tributary to the Chesapeake by the University of Maryland in its annual report card for the Chesapeake. So, yes, we’ve made tremendous progress since we were founded in 1976. Back then, the James was considered one of the most polluted rivers in the whole country, and now to be considered the healthiest tributary to the Bay is a great accomplishment. Richmond was named by Outside magazine as “America’s Best River Town” in 2012 and the James received the Theiss International Riverprize in 2019, so we’ve made some incredible progress, and communities up and down the river have really been transformed. That’s wonderful, but as I said, every step now becomes that much more challenging.

What do you attribute that success to?

Bill: A lot of it has been by addressing wastewater discharges that come from sewage treatment plants and industry. The James actually receives about 70% of Virginia’s wastewater discharge. So that has been a leading source of pollution for the James, and historically, was the largest factor that really crippled the river for many years. A large part of that success was due to the passage of the Clean Water Act, and we’re celebrating the 50th anniversary of its passage this year. We would argue that the James is one of the most improved rivers in the whole country because of that. Now, the remaining challenge is the pollution that runs off the land when it rains.

That runoff has to be an even bigger challenge since there is not a single point where you can address it.

Bill: That’s right. In urban areas, the rain washes all sorts of pollutants, and that challenge gets bigger as we convert forests and farmlands to urban and suburban development. The hydrology of that runoff really changes and can really decimate local streams, and then of course it trickles downstream to impact the health of the James. So, addressing polluted runoff is a critical component in making additional progress. On top of that, two other things are top of our minds.  First, climate change makes all that even more difficult. Climate change is resulting in more intense rainfall, as we saw in 2018 and 2020.  Along with that are rising sea levels and rising temperatures which cause distress to plants and animals.  And the second real concern are the contaminants themselves. There are these “forever chemicals” which actually has been found in 97% of the human population around the world. It’s so ubiquitous, they’ve even found it in the deepest parts of the ocean. These chemicals are just so long-lasting and get spread throughout the food chain, so it’s a huge challenge.

When you assign a grade of B-minus to the health of the river, that implies there are some bright spots. Does it compare favorably to other rivers?

Bill:  We have seen some incredible signs of recovery, and there’s a lot to be happy about. The sturgeon have come back, and we’re able to offer sturgeon-watching trips on the river. We’ve got probably the largest oyster reef at least on the East Coast and quite possibly the country or even the world. So I think the James in some ways sets a standard. There are other rivers in far less developed areas – like in the Yellowstone for example – that are doing very well, but that’s a totally different situation.

Look for part 2 of our interview with Bill Street in the coming days.

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