Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Volunteering for the James

We love our RiverRat volunteers! They act as the James River’s first line of citizen defense by assisting our Riverkeepers as the eyes and ears of the river and its tributaries. RiverRats come from all over the watershed, are all ages and have many different backgrounds. You don’t need to be a scientist or skilled paddler to become a RiverRat.

Meet Fred Kelly and Will Maddox, Lower James RiverRats. Fred is a retired mental health professional who currently lives in Dinwiddie County. His family has owned a cabin on the James River for five generations. This is where his father taught him to paddle and introduced him to the joys of being on the river. However, it was at that time a river in trouble. In those days the James was a dumping ground and it was not uncommon to find the shore lined with dead fish due to this pollution. There were fewer ducks, geese, osprey and virtually no eagles.

Thanks to the Clean Water Act and the efforts of local organizations like the James River Association, the river and its wildlife have bounced back. It is once again a place for recreation and creating memories. Fred shares his experiences on the James with his grandson Will. Fred says “Becoming a River Rat has greatly enhanced my enjoyment of being on the river by allowing me to become a protector of it as well. I only wish that I could have been doing this since I began paddling in the mid 1950s. I am especially pleased that my 15 year old grandson, Will, who took the River Rat training with me, will be in place to continue monitoring the river that he has grown to love long after I am no longer able to do so. I strongly encourage anyone who enjoys being on the river to get the training for becoming a River Rat. This is an opportunity that has been a long time coming. Don't miss it. Your river needs you.”

Here is what Fred had to say about his first RiverRat patrol with his grandson this past October:

Will and I have been paddling the James all of our lives and feel a need to preserve and protect this beautiful river. So when we heard about the River Rat program we were excited to get involved.

On October 23rd, we went on our first official River Rat patrol with the mission of shore clean-up. Hurricane Joaquin had produced flooding which carried lots of plastic, glass and other debris onto the shoreline. Our goal was to begin dealing with this problem by cleaning the shore on Tar Bay, part of our designated patrol area. After gathering and bagging trash from about 100 yards of shoreline, we headed out in our boat to collect a very large piece of debris that a previous storm had deposited on a tree nearby. It had been an eye-sore for months and we had talked about removing it all summer. This was the day. How good it was to see that pink, plastic car in our boat rather than on that tree! 

Next, we decided to make a run around Coggins Point and up Powells Creek to check out its status after the hurricane. Powells Creek is beautiful any time of year with its mixture of hardwoods and marsh but this day was exceptional. We motored up about a mile or more into an area where few people venture and stopped to take pictures. The first thing Will spotted as he stepped out of the boat was a very lively crayfish. He had learned earlier this year while on a James River Expedition that crayfish are a good indicator of pollution-free water. So we are happy to report the good water conditions in that part of the creek. We also found no trash to clean up. How lucky we are to have such a pristine area to enjoy, and now, to help watch over.

Assisting the RiverKeepers on the James makes a recreational outing on the river very gratifying. It lets us give back to the river that has always given us so much pleasure.

Need another excuse to get out on the water? Want to make a difference while enjoying your time outdoors? Email Ben Hawkins at to learn more about the RiverRats program or other volunteer opportunities. 

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Clean water means good fishing in the James

Tim O’Brien, president of Tycoon Tackle, Inc., has a passion for the waters he fishes. And he fishes a lot. After all, he came by his passion as honestly as a fisherman could- through his father. In 1935, Frank O’Brien founded Tycoon Tackle in Miami, gear for the era’s renowned sportsmen; sportsmen like Zane Grey and Ernest Hemingway.

“My dad just happened to come on the scene about that time and he developed these fishing rods that…were not breaking, and they started catching these giant fish,” Tim O’Brien said.
Frank O’Brien’s passion was startlingly interrupted in World War II, forcing the company to retool production to stay in business. Making fishing gear took a backseat to making aircraft landing gear. The company resumed making fishing gear after the war with a steady decline over the years due to the advent of mass produced fishing rods.

 All that changed close to a decade ago when Tim O’Brien led the rebirth of a once legendary tackle company producing bamboo, glass and graphite fly rods, and spinning and trolling rods. Armed with a sincere love of the sport and a doctoral degree in fisheries policy from Virginia Commonwealth University, O’Brien is poised to bring history to life. And his goal is to support organizations as passionate as he is about clean water.

In 2014 Tim O’Brien and Pat Calvert, the Upper James RiverKeeper for the James River Association decided to collaborate on a series of James River rods that would benefit the mission of preserving and protecting the health of America’s Founding River.

“Any business that relies on healthy, clean water is a good business in our opinion,” Calvert said.

This October we are proud to see the release of four rods, two spinning rods and two fly rods, specifically designed for use in the historic James River. Proceeds from each sale benefit our mission to preserve and protect the river for future generations. The rods will be custom, built-to-order, co-branded and appropriate for fishing sections of the James River. They will be available online at Tycoon Tackle and in finer outfitters throughout the watershed.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

James RiverRats Raft-Up

During the weekend of October 17th thirty of our most dedicated volunteers, our River Rats, met for the 5th annual RiverRats Raft-Up. This year’s Raft-Up was held in Scottsville, VA at the James River Inn on a 300-foot bluff overlooking the James and the vast watershed that RiverRats have been patrolling and protecting since 2011.

Our keynote speaker, Dr. Sarah Milov professor of History at the University of Virginia, kicked off the day with an inspiring talk about the power of grassroots activism, specifically drawing parallels between the non-smoker campaign for clean public air and our fight for a pristine natural resource and clean drinking water. Next, during a two-hour workshop on Patrols and Action Project planning, James River Association staff and RiverRats worked to calibrate our efforts and define strategies which will be implemented over the next year.

Two major strategies, and several minor adjustments, will be immediately undertaken. First, data from patrols, of which there are approximately 20 per month, will be more consistently reported, publicly and to other RiverRats, via monthly email updates and an interactive GoogleMap. Secondly, we will work to leverage existing technologies to streamline reporting and to expand patrols. We are working to utilize a GPS-enabled smartphone app called WaterReporter and we are considering the development of online RiverRat trainings to accommodate conservationists who may not be able to attend one of our four trainings held throughout the watershed each year.

After the strategy session, it was time to enjoy our world-class natural resource by paddling the Mighty James, award our outstanding RiverRats of the year, and finally to relax to the soothing, mountain sounds of the Rockfish Gap Band.

If you are interested in becoming a River Rat to keep watch over the James, the Raft-Up is one of many perks. You also have an opportunity to spend time paddling and protecting the river you love. Consider attending one of our upcoming trainings. If you are already a River Rat, we sincerely thank you for your commitment to protecting the James River now and for future generations. 

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Volunteering for the James

James River Association volunteers come in all shapes and sizes. They live all over the watershed, have many different skills and can be any age.

Meet our October Volunteer of the Month, Kiersten Hines. She’s a 13 year old Richmonder who has a passion for learning new things, playing the saxophone, volunteering and of course spending time on the James. She likes to hike the trails along the river with her dogs and go swimming with her family. Kiersten took on a research project related to the Our River at Risk advocacy campaign. Here’s what she had to say about her experience:

My task was to research and inventory all of the Surface Water Discharges in the James River from 1988 to 2003 using data from the Environmental Protection Agency. I chose to volunteer because I think that the environment has provided us with so much – like food, shelter and peace – so it is only fair to give back. Saving the James is a cause I believe in, and I’m not surprised that so many other people do too.

I would encourage other people to volunteer because there is nothing more rewarding than putting time and effort into a cause you care deeply for. You could climb the highest mountain or swim the deepest sea and still not feel the happiness that you could experience working with your community to make this giant mass of dirt, water, minerals and organisms a more enjoyable place to live.
Everyone should give volunteering a chance!

Are you interested in volunteering for the James? There are all sorts of opportunities for you to get involved from planting trees, to research projects, to event volunteers and more. Sign up here to get involved today! 

Thursday, September 17, 2015

There’s Hardly any Lawn at this River Hero Home!

Mark and Sally Wittkofski live in Henrico, Virginia with their son Nick. All three are garden enthusiasts and love Richmond’s James River Park System. Mark is semi-retired and describes himself as self-employed in Residential Garden Maintenance. Sally is a Landscape Architect/Landscape Designer. Their son Nick is currently a Fellow at the Allegheny Mountain Institute learning about organic gardening and permaculture.

The Wittkofski household is a certified River Hero Home. They decided to become a River Hero Home because they have been practicing organic gardening for a number of years, but wanted to be connected with others in the community who can provide information and resources to help them become better stewards of the James River.

Nick is interested in sustainability and permaculture. He encouraged his parents to install more river-friendly practices and eliminate most of their lawn by planting native plants in its place. There are two rain barrels at their house that collect about 70% of the rainwater from their roof. The other drain flows into a series of ditches, berms and rain water collection ponds to keep the water in the yard, rather than flowing into the sewer. Since most of their lawn is gone, the rain water is soaked up by native trees and shrubs.

The Wittkofskis want to encourage their friends and neighbors to eliminate the use of chemical herbicides and pesticides in their yards. These chemicals are dangerous to wildlife and have negative effects on the health of the James River. Instead, they encourage everyone to become a River Hero Home. Positive individual actions can result in a safer, cleaner environment for everyone. By installing river-friendly practices to prevent chemicals, bacteria from pet waste and sediment from entering local waterways, we can keep our river safe for recreation and clean for drinking water.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Education and Conservation are Key for this Lynchburg River Hero Home

David Stokes showing off vegetables from his
garden in front of a wall of climbing spinach
David Stokes lives in Lynchburg, Virginia a few miles from the James River with his wife Gail. He has certified his home as a River Hero Home and believes in helping educate the public on the importance of native plants and water conservation.

Even though David is retired, he is a very busy man! He is a certified Master Gardener and he volunteers much of his time educating the community about the importance of plants. Through the Master Gardener program, he works with DePaul Family Services to maintain a flower and vegetable garden to teach the importance of growing your own food and eating healthy. David also spends time at the Lynchburg Juvenile Detention Center where he works with teenagers planting a vegetable garden to grow produce for their meals. He is also president of the Vietnam Veterans of America Chapter 196, a member of the American Legion and on the Commanders Board at the Salem Veterans Administration.

Becoming a River Hero Home was a no brainer for David. He has seen changes, both good and bad, to the river over his lifetime and has spent many years enjoying the James. Since he has been recycling for over 45 years and his home is on well water, it seemed only natural to recycle his rain water too. The Stokes’ have rain barrels, rain cubes and a drip irrigation system installed at their home. He uses the water he collects to water his native plants and trees.

Rain cubes collect runoff from your roof when it rains.
And he sure does he have his system figured out! With a beautifully landscaped lawn full of native plants, as well as a vegetable garden, David needs quite a bit of water. With his current setup, a half an inch of rainfall allows him to collect over 900 gallons of free water!

David says it is important to practice what you preach. If you believe in conservation, then setting up a rain collection system is a great way to do your part to conserve water.  Using this water to help your native plants thrive also provides habitat for wildlife and improves water quality in the James River. 

Friday, September 4, 2015

Richmond River Condition Information – Brought to You by Dedicated Volunteers

By: Conor O’Donnell, Water Quality Intern for James River Association

The James River Association is now in its final week of water quality testing for the 2015 summer.  From the end of May to the beginning of September, the peak time for river recreation, volunteers have spent their Thursday and Friday mornings collecting and testing water at seven different sites in Richmond along the James River – Huguenot Flatwater, Pony Pasture, 42nd Street Rocks, Reedy Creek, Tredegar Flatwater, 14th Street Take-Out, and Rocket’s Landing. Volunteers tested these sites for E. coli bacteria, a standard test in determining whether a water source is safe for recreation. Sources of E. coli bacteria in the river include waste from wildlife, dogs, and livestock. Waste from Richmond's sewer system occasionally overflows into the James near downtown during heavy rains, acting as another source of E. coli. When we talk about whether the river is clean or dirty, the amount of E. coli in the water is one of our most useful indicators. 

In measuring for E. coli, our volunteers not only sought to maintain a health record of the James, but also to answer the question that is asked by many river-goers each day:  is this water safe to swim in?  The answer to that question is a resounding yes, with a big "unless...". The pattern that we’ve observed in our testing, is that the river is a very clean and safe place to swim, unless... it is raining or has rained in the past two days. E. coli levels spike during both small and large storms when rainwater washes E. coli into the river from sources such as animal waste and city sewage. Over the course of a few days, this pollution makes its way downstream and the level of E. coli bacteria in our section of the river decreases. This does mean, however, that the pollution that entered the river near us will negatively affect river-goers downstream of us, just as the waste of livestock above the Richmond area directly affects us when it rains upstream. That means that in working towards a clean and healthy James River, our actions and achievements must be the sum of many parts, not just a few - our efforts must stretch through the whole course of James, all 340 miles as well as its tributaries.

In an effort to make public all of our collected data, the James River Association developed the James River Watch, a website that details testing results not only from our seven testing sites in Richmond, but also from other testing sites all along the course of the James and even some of its tributaries. The website is updated each week with new data, and will show you a 'green light' if it is currently safe to swim, or a 'red light' if it is not. It is a great resource to check before going out to the river, whether you're swimming, boating, or fishing.

Our volunteers' efforts this summer are just one example of the many ways in which active citizens have involved themselves in the collaborative effort to protect, care for, and clean up our river. We would like to extend a personal thank you to both our volunteers and to all other organizations and active citizens that have dedicated their time to help make our river the special place that it is. Thank you!

Visit James River Watch to learn more about river condition: