Lesson 156
14 August 01
1.6 hours
The Riverkeeper
The Riparian Lands Coordinator

The James Riverkeeper, Lynn Ridley, is the son of a pilot, so he knows his way around airplanes and airports.  He's also a former ship captain, so he knows the water.  Libby Norris, the Riparian Lands Coordinator, grew up right on an airport.  Her grandfather, she said, built the first concrete runway in Nebraska. She has a masters in biology.

Today's mission (if that's not too high-flown a term for it)  was to inspect and photograph the Willis River, which the Commonwealth of Virginia has identified as "impaired"--that is unfit for swimming and fishing because of contamination by fecal coliform bacteria.

Or in less polite language, it's polluted.  Badly.  Shit in the water.

Here's a link to a map showing Virginia's impaired waters in red.  (Opens in its own new window.)  On it, the Willis River is the short red line extending north from the "E" in James River, right in the middle of the map. (We followed it farther upstream than the "E".  It goes almost to Farmville.)

If you're not looking at the map, the Willis River flows northward into the James near Cartersville, about 35 miles west of Richmond.

It's not a big river, and we found that it's hard to see from the air because even where it flows through cleared areas the banks are lined with bushy trees, so we could see the water only from directly above-and then only in brief glimpses.  The Willis meanders a lot, so I got in plenty of practice doing steep turns while trying to follow its course.

Following the river was tricky also because there was the typical Virginia-summer haze today, making the slant-range visibility less than optimum.  If we went high, we couldn't see it, and if we stayed low, we couldn't see where it was going in time to turn. About 1000 feet above the ground turned out to be best.  You can get a sense of our view in this photo, although we could see somewhat better than my camera could.  It was actually a moderately bright day.

Shortly after we started following the Willis upstream we flew through an updraft of strong-smelling air.  It smelled exactly like-well, you know.  Lynn and Libby both thought that someone had spread sludge (sludge, that's another of those euphemisms for you know) and they thought it might be the source of the high concentrations of fecal coliform bacteria in the river.

But the only way to find out for sure, Lynn said, is for him to get right down there in the water and follow it upstream, taking samples as he goes.  He said it was going to take a long time--several days of canoeing and wading--to track it down.

Libby was mainly interested in runoff abatement projects in the vicinity of the confluence of the Willis and the James.  That's where the "riparian" part comes in--having to do with living on the banks of rivers.  We flew back down the Willis (down is northward in this case) to a large estate so she could see how the work was progressing and photograph it.  Then we turned east, a few miles farther down the James, to another, even larger estate that she has been working with.  The James River Association helps "riparians" with grants, and the volunteers help with the planting, and all.

After that we high-tailed it back to Chesterfield County Airport, and they treated me to an excellent buffet lunch at the King's Korner Restaurant, (in other window) in the terminal building.

Over lunch we talked a bit about these officially "impaired waters."  Lynn said that the state is happy to identify impaired waters.  But that's usually as far as they go.  He said the state isn't obligated to do anything about impairments until they have identified the source of the impairment.  And there's no requirement for the state to make that identification.  I suspect that it's probably somewhat more complicated than that--lack of money and persons to do the identifying, and probably some political problems, too.  But Lynn's job as James Riverkeeper is to make those identifications and then he and the James River Association can start applying pressure on the state and can also work with the local riparians to help them clean up their properties.

The James River Association (in other window)

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