In late October 2019, William H. Street, chief executive officer (CEO) of The James River Association (JRA), caught a plane to Brisbane, Australia. Normally Street travels the halls of the Virginia General Assembly, the highways of the James River watershed and the James itself—by way of kayak, canoe, bateau and pontoon boat—lobbying for clean water and river health.
A flight half way around the world was out of the ordinary for Street, but the business of championing “America’s Founding River” has suddenly become global. As a current member of JRA’s board of directors, I want to share the reason for, and the significance of, his international flight.
Street headed to Brisbane to attend the International Riversymposium because the James River was nominated for the Theiss International Riverprize, the world’s foremost award in river-basin management and river-restoration achievements. It was a journey that in many ways began 43 years ago with the founding of the James River Association.
THE JAMES RIVER’S HEADWATERS BEGIN IN
Alleghany County, where the Jackson and Cowpasture Rivers converge. It flows 347 miles through farmland, towns and cities, past manufacturing plants and historic plantations, and empties into the Chesapeake Bay.
More than 2.6 million people live in the James River’s 10,000-square-mile watershed, which covers one fourth of the Commonwealth. While pollution discharged from large industrial and sewage plants has been largely regulated and reduced, the human impact of farming, development and daily modern life still greatly affects the river’s health. While challenges remain, the James River is making a tremendous comeback.
When I was a kid, no one swam in the James. Old-timers claimed the river water peeled the paint off their boats. In fact, the James was considered one of the most polluted rivers in North America—and for good reason.
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