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Rivers Planning

Below the Falls of the James

The Below the Falls of the James project is a multi-year effort to study resiliency along a section of the James River estuary.  The study area stretches from the falls in downtown Richmond eastward to the confluence with the Chickahominy River in Charles City County.  The study area includes member localities in PlanRVA: Charles City County, Chesterfield County, Henrico County, and the City of Richmond.

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The Below the Falls project aims to answer two key questions.

1) How do we respectfully share the James River?

The James River is an amazing natural resource that serves multiple purposes.  There are many interactive, yet sometimes competing, uses of land and water in the study area.  We use the river corridor for residential, business, and recreational purposes.  The land uses lining the river are diverse: housing, industry, power generation, commerce, agriculture, forestry, education and research, parks, trails, roads, highways, and ports.  We use the water for many purposes: drinking water, fishing, boating, swimming, industrial and agricultural uses, and transportation.

The purposes of the James stretch far beyond the human-oriented ones listed above.  Tides influence the James River from the Chesapeake Bay all the way up to the edge of the falls in downtown Richmond.  The tidal section of the James River is an estuary.  Estuaries are important ecosystems that support a wide variety of species for all or part of their lives.  Take a trip along the James River estuary corridor and don't be surprised if you see bald eagles and osprey nesting along the water, sturgeon breaching the water, or many baby fish among the calm tributaries and underwater grass patches.  In fact, in late summer and early fall, don't be surprised if you see blue crabs among the shallows near 14th Street in Richmond.

Estuary (NOAA)
Estuary (NOAA)

Estuaries

Estuaries are coastal bodies of water that have mixed fresh and salty water. The water in estuaries is mixed because they are fed by rivers but also a connection with oceans. Estuaries have a barrier to the sea, that protects them from ocean energy, but, estuaries still connect with the sea. Because of this connection with the sea, estuaries are strongly influenced by tides (NOAA).

Get to know estuaries with this two-minute video

About the Osprey Nest

Osprey Nest

The RVA Osprey Cam first came to life in the late winter of 2017. Set on a bridge piling in the shadow of Richmond’s skyline and hemmed by James River Park land, the RVA Osprey Cam was a huge hit in the city and beyond - generating nearly a quarter of a million views. The stream showcased an osprey pair, later named Maggie and Walker by our viewers, as they nested, laid eggs and reared young. It’s a project that could not have happened without the support of the Friends of the James River Park.

RVA Osprey Cam

Ospery - "Mike" Michael L. Baird
Ospery - "Mike" Michael L. Baird

Atlantic Sturgeon

Many believed the Atlantic sturgeon were gone from the Chesapeake Bay watershed. They hadn’t been sighted in rivers that fed the bay for decades. The sturgeon, one of the oldest and largest fish on earth (growing upwards of 14 feet long and weighing more than 800 pounds) were once found in huge numbers along the Atlantic Coast and coastal rivers from Canada to Florida. They were an important food for indigenous peoples along the coast and likely saved Jamestown colonists from starvation.

Sturgeon breaching in the James River -
 Don West
Sturgeon breaching in the James River - Don West

2) How do we consider an uncertain future?

The James River estuary is a waterbody that has periodically flooded throughout history.  These episodes of flooding due to increased water draining from the immediate watershed or from upriver can be exacerbated due to tidal influence. Flooding will likely get worse over time due to relative sea-level rise.  Eastern Virginia is currently experiencing exacerbated levels of relative sea-level rise compared to most places on earth due to land subsidence.  Land subsidence is when the land is effectively sinking.  Land in Virginia is subsiding due to a variety of factors including groundwater withdrawals and a long-term, continuing adjustment of the bedrock as a result of ice sheets from the last ice age melting.  As we consider interactions of the purposes of the James, we must keep in mind the threat posed by natural disasters along the corridor both now and in the future.

James River and 14th Street bridge looking toward the central business district after Camille

James River & 14th Street bridge looking toward Richmond's central business district after Hurricane Camille 1969.

Industrial flooding I-95 Agnes

Richmond's industrial area south of the James, I-95 looking toward the Robert E. Lee bridge after Hurricane Agnes 1972.

Eastern View of Flooded Richmond Agnes-Small

Main Street Station looking toward Church Hill across Shockoe Bottom after Hurricane Agness 1972.

Main Street Station Richmond from Hurricane Agness 1972

Richmond's Main Street Station viewed from Main Street after Hurricane Agness 1972.

The James River estuary is a unique resource that we all must share.  Given all the demands on the James River, there is value in discussing and learning from each other about how we can sustainably share the river corridor.  As a first step in answering these questions, PlanRVA has engaged regional stakeholders in a committee to discuss and discern key issues.  The first product produced to facilitate this conversation is the Below the Falls Web Mapper (soon to be released).

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This project, Task # 48 was funded by the Virginia Coastal Zone Management Program led by the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality through Grant FY18 #NA18NOS4190152 of the US Department of Commerce, National Oceanic, and Atmospheric Administration, under the Coastal Zone Management Act of 1972, as amended.  The views expressed herein are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the US Department of Commerce, NOAA, or any of its sub-agencies.

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