I recently sat along the James River in Richmond, VA watching a whitewater rafting trip head through Pipeline Rapid, happily shrieking with joy as they were splashed with water on the last rapid before reaching the takeout. All around them, I saw no less than seven herons perched on rocks. An osprey flew to its nest on an old railroad pillar, and turtles sunbathed on exposed rocks from the low river levels. Backdropped by the Richmond city skyline, I couldn’t help but think what a privilege and joy it is to live near this section of the James.

I lived for seven years in New England, spending most of my time in the mountains and forests. When I moved to Richmond in 2017, I arrived in brutal heat and humidity in late September. I was drawn to the James River, where I saw people swimming and fishing, dogs splashing in the water, and families and friends gathering together. I watched kayakers and rafters run Hollywood rapid, having no idea at the time that the James River, and this set of rapids, would become such a driving force in my life here in Richmond.

Even when the temperatures started to cool down, I found myself and my water-loving dog using our free time to explore the many public access spots along the James within city limits that the James River Park System works tirelessly to maintain. Cooler temperatures meant fewer crowds, but the always-present boaters at the put-ins before the rapids never waned. As I started to get to know the regulars, I learned more and more about the vast boating community in Richmond and the whitewater recreational opportunities found throughout the Chesapeake Bay watershed.

In Richmond, we have outfitters with trained guides to get people safely out on the river, whether a whitewater trip through the rapids or a leisurely flatwater float upstream. There are afterschool educational programs and summer programs that focus on getting students in canoes and kayaks, connecting with their local waterways. There are groups like James River Women, aimed at supporting more women and femme-identifying paddlers on their journey into whitewater paddling. We are lucky here in Richmond to provide these opportunities for connection to our local waterways. It is no secret that the more connected people are to our waterways, the more they want to help protect them. We must also remember that being safe on the river is a privilege gained from exposure to guided trips, mentors, summer camps, and more.

Alliance Richmond staff enjoying an afternoon on the water.

Especially in the summer, the James is heavily visited by river-goers of all abilities. Always check the river level before you head out and know where the hazardous features, such as low-head dams, are on the river so you can safely avoid them. You can visit the Westham Gauge, How’s the James RVA Instagram page, or check out the local conditions page on the Riverside Outfitters site. On the James,  lifejackets are required when the river level is above 5 feet.  River users can also visit the James River Park System for additional safety tips. A higher water level doesn’t just mean deeper water but faster moving currents and hidden rocks and logs. 

Recreational boaters are a powerful stewarding resource we have in the Chesapeake community. These boaters are voices on and off the river to communicate information about river health and safety. I’ve witnessed boaters share so many excellent resources that environmental organizations work hard to produce, from resources about weekly bacteria monitoring and water levels to combined sewer overflow events that allow people to make decisions about recreating responsibly for themselves and setting examples for those around them.

Not only am I fortunate to recreate on the River in my free time, but I’m also able to connect with the James in my everyday work life.  I have the privilege of joining others to connect with their local waterways through volunteer water quality monitoring. Launched in 1985 and funded primarily by Virginia DEQ RiverTrends is the Alliance’s Volunteer Water Quality Monitoring Project which provides training, equipment, and technical support for volunteers to conduct chemical and physical water quality monitoring in their communities. Outside of smaller rivers in Virginia, we also recently became involved in implementing the DC Citizen Science Volunteer Water Quality Monitoring Program, funded by DOEE.  Alongside our partners at Anacostia Riverkeeper, Rock Creek Conservancy, and Audubon Naturalist Society, this project aims to provide up-to-date, weekly water quality data to visitors and residents and visitors during peak recreation months. This is the first effort to integrate citizen science water quality data to inform policy management and assessments into the District’s water quality plan. 

I help train community members to collect baseline water quality trends. Most volunteers find us because their love and connection to their local waterway already exists. However, they are even more connected and informed by having this profound understanding of the waterway they call home. Collecting this data is crucial in informing the public of the safety and quality of our rivers. Now more than ever, it’s essential to see how recreation on the water and the quality of the water are intertwined so that we can keep enjoying the river as our outdoor playground but first and foremost while staying safe and healthy. My journey with whitewater recreation and water quality are deeply connected, and I look forward to continuing to promote Chesapeake Bay stewardship and river safety in my circles and beyond.