Its beginning is a simple one.
Two mountain streams wind along parallel paths approaching Iron Gate, Va., home to fewer than 400 people. Here, the James River begins to take shape. It continues for nearly 350 miles, twisting and bending and winding, gliding through open farmland and rushing over rocky rapids until meeting its final briny fate as it pours into the expanse of the Atlantic Ocean. In many ways, Richmond’s beginnings are as unremarkable as the head of the James. Expected, even. As our nation’s founders set out across the colony, they were guided inland by the river until a 105-foot descent at the Falls of the James determined that they would go no further.
Building a community alongside the banks of a river was not a new idea. The view from Richmond’s Libby Hill conjured images of England’s Thames River. The river provided food and water, and allowed for travel, shipping, and industry.
“They settled next to the river because of its soothing environment,” says Todd Lookingbill, assistant professor of geography and the environment. “They felt a strong visual connection, they loved the sound of the river, and there were practical reasons—the shipping, power, and industry. We recreated, we extracted water for drinking, we used it for energy.
“And then we threw all of our refuse back into the river.”
Upstream and downstream. Natural resources and natural stressors. People and water. They’re all connected.
These relationships are also the connection between Lookingbill and his study of watersheds. A watershed is an area where all water—from rain to tributaries to groundwater—drains to a common destination, linking the plants, animals, and people living there. The James River Watershed is 10,000 square miles—nearly a quarter of the state and home to nearly one-third of Virginians.
Lookingbill’s exploration of watersheds brought him to the University of Richmond, where the history and natural landscape of the James River provide a living laboratory for studying the ongoing relationship between residents and their flowing water.
“Throughout the 1800s, the river is basically viewed as a resource,” Lookingbill says. “We were extracting water out and then putting waste back in. In the 1900s, internationally and here in Richmond, we turned our backs to the river a bit.”
He describes the increase of floodwalls that separate citizens from their rivers. He refers to the levees of New Orleans and Mississippi and to other ways of containing water sources. He talks about a human need to control rivers, about attempts to clean them by removing dirt and debris. He even mentions the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ practice of straightening rivers.
“They thought it was unnatural for a stream to meander and to bend,” he says. “We had a totally different concept of what rivers should be.”
But stream straightening, river cleansing, and floodwalls were just the beginning of trouble for the James.
While the Riverfront Development Plan
focuses on the area from Rocketts Landing
to the Lee Bridge, the University is evaluating its own accessibility to the waters. The river is just a hop, skip, and jump from campus, but the path includes major intersections, few traffic lights, and a difficult descent down the riverbank. An ecocorridor, which some have jokingly
started to call the Spider Trail, is being
explored to connect campus and the James River.
Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, Life Sciences Products, a chemical factory in Hopewell, Va., was the sole producer of Kepone, a chemical similar to DDT used for roach and ant traps. The factory released as much as 200,000 pounds of the substance into the environment, including into the James River.
When the practice was exposed, Richmond became the center of an environmental uproar. National media descended, and the James achieved a reputation as one of the dirtiest rivers in America. In 1975, Gov. Mills E. Godwin Jr. shut down all fishing in the James River from Richmond south to the Chesapeake Bay. The restriction would remain for 13 years.
While the James was being flooded with Kepone, the federal government was preparing to pass a landmark environmental bill—the 1972 Clean Water Act—which called for meeting human recreation standards by 1983 and the elimination of toxins and water pollution by 1985.
“The Clean Water Act was huge,” Lookingbill says. “It can’t be overemphasized. It allowed a lot of the water quality changes that have come about, where you’re not seeing contaminated sewage water float by you.”
The Clean Water Act was a major impetus for changing industrial practices and protecting the city’s greatest natural resource, but getting citizens to see the James River as clean and usable proved to be a more difficult turn to navigate.
Leadership professor Don Forsyth winds his way through Richmond’s Northside neighborhood, knocking on doors and speaking to any resident who answers. He asks about their awareness of nearby streams and rivers, their attitudes toward water, and their willingness to represent their community.
The simple survey is carefully crafted to answer Forsyth’s biggest question: If people are aware that they live in a watershed and play a role in its health, will they make changes to protect it?
“That’s the weird thing about water—it moves along,” Forsyth says. “If you do something bad to it, it goes away from you. So the psychology is different than the psychology of destroying land, which will always be there. But the water just keeps going.”
Forsyth found that most residents assumed that all wastewater went to a treatment plant and back into the James. And because the state of the James is greatly improved, they had nothing to worry about. “If your car has a little leak, you have to put oil in it every couple of months and you don’t worry about it too much,” he says. Most people think the oil that falls on the driveway or parking lot somehow finds its way to a treatment plant. “But that’s not what happens. It gets washed by the rain from the parking lot into the pond or the stream and then into the James.”
But the more residents understood the contamination and the impact of their behaviors, Forsyth discovered, the more likely they were to take action to keep their neighborhood streams clean.
Forsyth’s insight about personal awareness is something Lookingbill sees following the implementation of the Clean Water Act. “It’s natural to be drawn to water,” he says. “People are made of water. Most have grown up around a river. Most of our cities are on the water. It’s almost unnatural not to embrace it. It takes a very small push to get that momentum going and to get people to re-embrace their natural instincts.”
While awareness is one source of that momentum, some residents are motivated when they recognize their role as a community representative. In a later study, Forsyth—who specializes in studying group dynamics—found that a sense of community was a critical indicator of a person’s commitment to change.
“We have lots of selves, and sometimes we overlook that group-level self,” he says. “If you can get them to think more about their connections to others, their membership in the larger group, the theory was that we’re engaging that larger self—the self that identifies with other people. The idea was, rather than getting people to change as individuals, it might be better to get them to change as members of the community.”
A few weeks into the semester, Lookingbill takes his students out on the James River on a rafting trip to get a view of the river you can only get up close.
Lookingbill keeps his direction to a minimum. This isn’t about students listening to him lecture about the ecology of the watershed.
The students point out osprey and the occasional bald eagle flying overhead. A young couple sitting on the banks. The wildness of the water moving through the rapids.
As the students follow the course of the river, observations start to shift. They notice exposed rocks, dragonflies, and aquatic vegetation.
It’s the first day of management professor Andy Litteral’s first-year seminar, Water: Economics, Politics, and Policy. He hands out a single piece of paper asking a few simple questions: How much water do you use a month? What was your last water bill? Where does your water come from? For most of the students, this is their first college class, their first college professor, and their first college assignment.
Some start writing immediately, while others extend their hands with a nervous glance around the room. “What if I don’t know the answer?” some ask.
“Just write what you know,” Litteral responds.
A few weeks later they’ll be discussing
hydraulic fracking, privatization of public
water infrastructure, and religious implications in water conflict resolution. They begin to see that the issues of water extend well past the end of the tap and beyond the banks of the rivers like the James.
“That’s generally how we take in nature,” Lookingbill says. “We look at the grand vista first, but then we focus on the little things that are just as fascinating. Unfortunately, in today’s world, we don’t always have that time. We move away from the area before we’ve psychologically moved from the big vista to the sea grasses.”
In some ways, Richmond residents are much like Lookingbill’s students. The Clean Water Act was critical to the rebirth of the ecology of the watershed. One of the greatest success stories is the dramatic return of the bald eagle population along the James River, which increased from zero breeding pairs in the 1970s to 174 pairs in 2011. Sturgeon, which were thought to be extinct in the Chesapeake Bay and along the Atlantic Coast, have also returned. A heron rookery is perched downtown, and in 2009, a manatee was spotted swimming in Richmond.
As natural life gained new ground, city residents started to pay attention.
A camera pointed on a pair of bald eaglets captured the attention of nearly two million viewers from February to June 2012. Their hatching in mid-March even rivaled local interest in the NCAA basketball tournament runs by the Spiders and Virginia Commonwealth University.
“At one point, they had to shut down the site because the eaglets were fighting each other,” Lookingbill says. “It’s a natural part of the biology that they compete for the food that the parents bring back, and one gets bigger than the other and starts to bully the other one around. They both made it, which is the great part. It was a happy ending.”
The watershed has also taken shape as an outside classroom for many students. Biology classes frequently test water quality on campus, including the lake, Little Westham Creek, and along the Gambles Mill trail, and look for the presence of macro-invertebrates—a key indicator of a healthy water source. The experience helps students answer questions about ecology, biology, geography, culture, economics, history, and community.
Lookingbill asked his Geography of the James River class in spring 2011 to decide whether Richmond was the best example of a fall-line ecosystem in the country. Some students were so convinced they submitted a proposal asking the National Park Service to designate the James River Park System as a National Natural Landmark. The NPS is still considering the proposal, but Lookingbill has made his decision.
“The history of this river is unrivaled,” he says. “This is America’s founding river. The megafauna is spectacular on this river. To have nesting bald eagles in the city is incredible.
“One of the things that’s really special about the James is how much protected land we have actually downtown. Most of the river access is in the city proper. In most cities, people leave the city to go outdoors and recreate—they go out to the suburbs and the hinterlands. But here, we go into the city.”
Drive from Southside Richmond into downtown today, and you’ll cross over the James River along the Lee Bridge, approaching Belvidere Street. To the right, you’ll see an urban skyline of shining modern architecture. To the left, the 150-year-old tombstones of Hollywood Cemetery rise out of the surrounding wilderness. Walk across the footbridge to Belle Isle and you’ll just as likely be next to a group of tattooed hipsters with coolers of beer as a young family out for an afternoon picnic. You’ll cross paths with hikers and bikers, fishermen and kayakers, naturalists and historians. And you’ll be hard-pressed to find a patch of unoccupied rock.
Richmonders of all walks of life are rediscovering what it means to live along the banks of the James.
The city planning commission is using this enthusiasm as a catalyst in developing the Downtown Master Plan and the recently approved Richmond Riverfront Plan.
Commissioner Amy Howard, who is also director of the University’s Bonner Center for Civic Engagement, explains that when the city looked to residents to form a collective vision for the future of the city’s riverbanks, the response was overwhelming. In public forums, citizens talked about their love for the river, the wide-ranging variety of activities they engage in, and the challenges of accessing the river.
“The general consensus from the public was what an asset and a jewel the river is, and a deep and shared desire to make it easier to get to, use, and appreciate,” Howard says. “It’s really not all that easy to navigate. There are a lot of people who don’t know where Texas Beach is and who don’t know that you can paddleboard or kayak. We wanted to know, ‘How can we make it accessible to anyone who wants to get their feet wet?’”
The plan defines regions for wildlife, urban riverfronts, green spaces, recreation, and parks. It will accommodate everything from bird watching, education, and kayaking to festivals, restaurants, and art.
—John Smith describing the site
of Richmond, originally known
as Nonesuch Place
“When you’re on I-95, you cannot even begin to imagine that such a beautiful, natural resource like the James River is running through the center of the city,” Howard says. “Richmond has unlimited potential as a river city. Unlimited.”
Richmond residents also showed they have swagger when it comes to the city’s river. This summer, Outside magazine set out to find “America’s most progressive,
adventurous, and livable river towns.” The frontrunners were well-known river destinations like Nevada City, Calif., and Durango, Colo. Outside writer Jon Stillman considered his stop in Richmond a courtesy visit.
“I figured I’d end up writing about Missoula, Mont., or Hood River, Ore.,” he writes. “I’ve got the Rocky Mountain superiority complex when it comes to rivers; I knew Richmond was a candidate, but I didn’t seriously consider the possibility of Eastern time zones.”
But with a Facebook competition part of the mix, Richmonders rallied and won the title, proving what everyone here already knew: Richmond is the best river town in America.
The James River is still one of the dirtiest rivers in America, as sediment and runoff make their way into the water, but it’s a cleaner and more natural dirtiness. It’s what it’s supposed to be.
And Richmond is exactly what it’s meant to be—a river city.
Kim Catley is a writer and editor in the office of University communications. This story carried her across each of Richmond’s bridges and off the beaten path for a new outlook on both the river and the River City.
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