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Hopewell continues to be a "hot spot" for algae on the James, but things are improving and there's ways you can help

Posted by: brad – Aug 05, 2015

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Ken Slazyk stood before a group of varied professionals ranging in age from unpaid intern to senator. As the James River Boat Program Co-Manager/Educator for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation (CBF), he usually addresses kids on field trips who are just thrilled to be out of the classroom.

This group is not much different, just swap classroom for office; grown ups like field trips too.

Slazyk told the group about the way things were on the James when John Smith first came here.

"In his journal he wrote about how you could see thirty feet down into the water, it was so clear," he recalled. "Oysters were as big as dinner plates and birds would fly overhead in flocks so thick that they would block out the sun.”

One might be able to make an educated guess that things on the James aren't quite as Disney-picturesque as they once were.

If you look back through articles that span the last decade you will see time and time again titles like “Virginia's James River Still Is Choked With Pesticide Contamination” and “Virginia Second-Worst State for Toxic Chemicals Dumped into its Waterways” and of course Hopewell left its lasting legacy on the James with the Kepone scandal.

With all this doom and gloom it may be surprising to find out that the state of the James is actually improving.

This by no means should lead you to believe that the River is back to its John-Smith-era state. One issue is an overabundance of algae.

“We have one of the most productive systems in all of the Chesapeake Bay,” Said Joe Wood, staff scientist for the CBF. “When I’m talking about productivity, specifically what im talking about is algae. The amount of algae in this part of the river, these colors, how green they are, indicate how much algae is in the water on a regular basis.

Wood said the 10-20 mile stretch of James River we were floating, south of RVA near Hopewell, in has has more algae than anywhere else on the Chesapeake Bay.

A VCU study examining algae blooms along the James backed up his assessment calling this portion of the river a “hot spot for algal blooms" caused by elevated chlorophyll concentrations.

Between the added nutrients, the shallow waters, and the hot summer sun, this stretch of the James become "dominated by freshwater cyanobacteria (blue-green algae)."


Image via VCU's James River Algae Bloom Study

Algae is bad because it blocks out the sun which chokes out plant and animal life. The short answer for what causes this is easy: it's us - run off from farms, packed with nutrients, acts as a fertilizer for the under-water plant allowing for explosive growth (just like our giant tomatoes).

But there are a few programs in place aiming to give all of us the opportunity to clean up our own mess.

Grasses for the Masses in one such opportunity which allows citizens to get involved. “In our program what we do is allow citizens to grow these underwater grasses in their homes.” said Blair Blanchette, VA Grassroots coordinator for the CBF. “So we give them kits and seeds. This particular species that we are growing is wild celery. It's a fresh water grass and it's beautiful and green and they grow it January through May and then come to two of our planting sites.”

These grasses provide a food source, oxygen, and even absorb some pollutants. Private citizens from students in classrooms to families at home are helping to grow the grasses which provide a much needed element to the river. This program actually began 15-years-ago and was called ‘Grasses of for the Classes,’ it was mainly targeted at students. Now it is open to any person or group that want to help restore the watershed.

Another notable program is the oyster gardening initiative. Those who own dock space in salt water areas are given baby oysters to cultivate. Once they have grown to adult the CBF collects them and takes them back to sanctuary reefs. This helps to maintain a balanced eco system.

There are dozens of programs to participate in, and finding the right one is especially easy. The volunteer page allows its users to fill out a form that shows what they are interested in. Blanchette explained that from there she sends out emails that are specifically tailored to whatever volunteer work she thinks you would be interested in.

While programs like these are helping to improve water quality the CBF still needs monetary assistance so that improvement can continue. “We are about halfway there,” Said Ann Jurczyk, Outreach and Advocacy Manager of the CBF. “...but the second half does not have much low hanging fruit.”

To find a program thats right for you visit cbf.org/join-us/volunteer/virginia.

Words by Emily Haswell, Photos via CBF

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