Header photo titled “Pretty Day on the James” and taken by George Harrison
Bill Street has been the president and CEO of the James River Association for the past 17 years. In part one of our interview with him, Bill talked about the health of the river, the progress made in improving it and the continued challenges. In this second installment, he discusses the many programs and activities – and some very cool new plans – that are in the works at JRA.
We talked a bit about individual responsibility. What would you say are some of the things that people living within the watershed can do on a regular basis to help improve the health of the James?
Bill: One of the programs we have is called River Hero Homes, and that program grows out of the fact that the polluted runoff from our suburban areas is a key source of pollution. What people do around their house plays a role in the health of local waters – a local stream or creek – and eventually the James River. So that’s one way – being careful about fertilizers you use, try to use native plants, reduce the amount of lawn you have and turn it into natural areas. Generally reducing the amount of pavement can really help. And then looking at energy use – the more you can conserve, the less energy use there is and that translates to less pollution. Automobile tailpipes also is a huge source of air pollution that eventually settles into the James. Then there’s what people eat. The amount of land we devote to agriculture has a big impact on water resources. If we’re eating things that require a lot of energy, a lot of fertilizers, it places that much more stress on the river.
What kinds of foods are you referring to?
Bill: Basically, any kind of meat production requires a lot more land area and water resources to support. And so generally, eating lower on the food chain is a better choice for the river’s health.
It seems that people in the region all have a relationship with the river, though in different ways. Has that been your experience?
Bill: There’s a fun adage that “you never step in the same river twice,” and so every experience with the James is unique and personal. That is really what drives people’s interest and love of the river – their own personal experiences. They can be so meaningful. People turn to the river to relax or reenergize, to get perspective, to help heal. It’s an amazing asset to our community in that respect. And so a lot of the focus of the James River Association and other conservation organizations has been to focus on the science, on understanding what’s going on with rivers, what’s affecting them. We are trying to get laws and regulations and programs in place to help the river but that always doesn’t tap that emotional connection that people have to the river. That’s why we are launching a storytelling platform on Earth Day (April 22nd this year) and hope to be able to showcase 50 stories by the 50th anniversary of the Clean Water Act on October 18. We want to really highlight the ways that the James River impacts people’s lives in such positive ways and how the river is such a resource and inspiration to people. We’re really excited about that and hope it will help us engage more people.
Is there a web link where people can participate or find out more?
Bill: Yes, it’s www.storiesbythejames.org.
Speaking of JRA initiatives, you also are undertaking some very ambitious plans as well.
Bill: You’re talking about our James Changer campaign which we launched in 2019 as a three-year campaign to really strengthen our efforts to expand our reach so we can achieve a fully healthy James River that supports communities up and down the river. We set a goal of $20 million. It includes a lot of restoration projects on the ground – planting trees along streams west of Richmond in the Upper and Middle James watersheds. And in the tidal James, the focus is on using living shorelines to restore shorelines that are eroding as well as some capital projects that would establish river centers in each area where we have our offices – the Lynchburg, Richmond and Williamsburg regions. And then finally, we would use funds to build our endowment. That campaign has been really well received, and it’s by far the most ambitious campaign that we’ve ever launched. We were able to reach the $20 million mark two-and-a-half years into it, and now we have raised the goal to $25 million, and we’re at $22.5 million now. We’re hoping to close it out by the end of our fiscal year (June 30).
This may sound a bit like asking you to choose your favorite child, but do you have a favorite part of the James?
Bill: My standard line is that the last place I’ve been on the river is my favorite place. That’s cause there really are so many great sections, and one of the things I love about working on the James is that we’ve got the full spectrum – from mountains with brook trout and valleys and vistas through the slower moving Piedmont and beautiful areas around there. And then you get into the tidal James and all the way down to salt water. To have a river that offers that full gamut is fantastic.
Will you allow us to press you a little more? Is there a secret spot that you love, maybe somewhere that is accessible only by canoe or kayak?
Bill: There are just so many of those. It’s hard to place one above the other, but I will say that I think one of the most unique and special things on the James is that we do have sturgeon watching, and we can’t find any other river in the world that advertises it. Every September, we schedule these trips, and we have not had a trip yet that has been fully shut out. Five- to seven-foot fish that are prehistoric, fascinating creatures that jump fully out of the river. It’s a great sign for the river, and it’s really a unique and special experience.
In late March, JRA – with the City of Richmond and other conservation partners – officially secured close to one acre of riverfront land on Dock Street just below Great Shiplock Park. The site will be the location of JRA’s planned James River Center, a cutting-edge education center where JRA, working with Richmond Public Schools, will engage local youth in learning about the river. Another five acres will be transferred to the City of Richmond and become part of the James River Park System.