At the James River Association we’re often asked “is it safe to swim in the James?” The best way to have a safe, fun time on the water is to be in the know before you go.

Today we released a report Swimming Safety in the James – Know Before You Go: Bacteria Monitoring Results 2013-2017. This report looks back on five years of water quality monitoring data to reveal bacteria patterns in the James River, which affect conditions for swimming and other forms of recreation.

Since 2013 we have monitored water quality at popular recreation locations on the James and its tributaries. Each weekend from Memorial Day to Labor Day, trained volunteers collect water samples at designated locations where the public is known to frequent for paddling, fishing and swimming. Results are verified for quality assurance and then uploaded to the James River Watch website, an online resource for river conditions important to boaters, paddlers and swimmers. Weekly water samples test temperature, water cloudiness or turbidity, and E. coli bacteria. In high concentrations, E. coli can be harmful to human health and indicate greater likelihood of other harmful bacteria in the water.

James River Watch data shows that on average the river is generally safe for recreation, with 83% of all samples taken over the past five years meeting the state’s safety standard. The other 17% of samples that showed high levels of bacteria were primarily found after significant rain events, which wash bacteria pollution into the river from surrounding land or from sewage systems. Although bacteria levels vary based on weather conditions, testing sites in or immediately downstream of urban areas tend to be bacteria hotspots, as well as sites in rural areas where farm animals have access to streams and rivers.

“This data demonstrates that our local waterways are safe for recreation most of the time, but extra caution is necessary after rainstorms,” said Jamie Brunkow, James Riverkeeper. “It is important for river goers to know local conditions before spending time on the river. Checking James River Watch is an easy way to ensure a safe, fun time on the water.”

Virginia has cleanup plans in place for many of the sections of the James River that are impaired by bacteria pollution. These cleanup plans call for practices that reduce urban stormwater and agricultural pollution, the same issues that are also critical for meeting Virginia’s Chesapeake Bay goals. Virginia will be updating its Chesapeake Bay cleanup plan over the next year.

“Human health continues to be at risk due to pollution entering the James River. To ensure that the James is safe for everyone to enjoy, we need to strengthen and adequately fund state and local programs to address polluted runoff from urban stormwater and agriculture” said Brunkow.

Members of the public can help improve the health of the river by taking simple steps to minimize pollution at home. Picking up after your pet can reduce bacteria entering local waterways. Installing a rain garden and planting trees and native plants can help slow down stormwater. Learn more by joining our River Hero Home Program. Citizens can also help advance solutions for clean water with elected officials by joining our Action Network.