2013-04-24 / Family

County’s ‘River Heroes’ help clean up the James

By Donna C. Gregory

Rick McCormick, part of the River Hero Home program that works to reduce polluted runoff into the James River, also keeps bees in his backyard garden 
John Beebe /Chesterfield Observer Rick McCormick, part of the River Hero Home program that works to reduce polluted runoff into the James River, also keeps bees in his backyard garden John Beebe /Chesterfield Observer While April showers bring May flowers, they also increase pollution levels in local streams and rivers. But some county homeowners are doing their part to protect the health of local waterways by becoming certified river heroes.

Last spring, the James River Association (JRA), a local nonprofit that works to conserve the James River, started its River Hero Home program, which encourages homeowners to take simple actions to reduce storm-water runoff from their properties.

The JRA has designated April as River Hero Home Month, setting a goal of certifying 50 additional properties this month.

Storm-water runoff from homes, businesses and agricultural land is the most widespread source of water pollution in the James River watershed, and it threatens the health of the river, according to the JRA.

“Many people don’t realize that even if they can’t see the river – or any body of water – from their house, their actions still impact the health of the James River and its tributaries,” said Michelle Kokolis, JRA’s watershed restoration projects manager.

“Most rainwater that goes into storm drains does not get treated. It flows off your lawn, into the street and directly into a local waterway.”

Margaret Smigo certified her Smoketree home last summer. Smigo coordinates water quality studies for the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality, but was looking for a way to extend her concern for water quality at home.

“I felt it was necessary to lead by example, to show my commitment to improving water quality, to walk the walk,” Smigo said.

To get certified by the River Hero Home program, homeowners must engage in a river-friendly practice, such as adding a rain barrel to a downspout, planting native plants, constructing a rain garden or installing permeable pavers.

Smigo opted to install rain barrels on several downspouts. The barrels collect rainwater, providing her with free water to use in her garden.

“Economically and environmentally, there’s nothing to be lost by engaging in the program and pretty much everything to gain,” Smigo said.

Bon Air resident Rick McCormick installed native plants and rain barrels as part of his certification last spring.

“As a Master Gardener, I’m already kind of headed in that direction,” McCormick said. “I had some [native plants] in place, and I plan to do some additional native plantings.”

To become certified, homeowners also commit to certain everyday actions, like picking up pet waste, reducing lawn fertilizer usage, keeping drains clear and boating responsibly.

McCormick was already doing some of the JRA’s recommended actions, including limiting his use of fertilizer.

“People spend a whole lot of money on their … lawns that might not be necessary,” he said. “If they did a soil test, they’d know what chemicals to put on and when to put them on, and they’d find out they don’t need everything that someone tells them they need.

“[The River Hero Home certification process] was a great review of my property and my contribution to controlling storm-water runoff,” McCormick added.

As more watershed residents commit to environmentally-friendly practices, the JRA hopes it will have cumulative effect on the river’s health.

“[With] one home, [it] doesn’t seem like that much [storm-water runoff] is coming off your property, but when you add up all of the homes across the watershed, it’s a huge amount,” said Amber Ellis, JRA’s watershed restoration associate.

“Without regular property owners doing the right things on their property, the health [of the river] is only going to get so much better. Little things that you do at your home every day make a big difference.”

The latest State of the James report, released by the JRA in 2011, gives the river a “C” grade for overall health, slipping slightly from “C+” two years previously. (The report covers the entire James River basin, including portions in Chesterfield County.)

“Like a boat rowing against the tide, our efforts and investments over the past decade have only kept pace with the growing population and development,” reads the report. “Additional progress in reaching a fully healthy river will require a full commitment to Virginia’s cleanup plan for the James River.”

The report assigned grades in four categories: wildlife, habitat, pollution and restoration/ protection actions. Those grades were then averaged to come up with the overall health grade.

“Pollution continues to have the greatest impact on the river’s health and is the leading cause of the decreased overall score,” the report reads.

“In particular, nitrogen, phosphorous and sediment pollution cause widespread damage to the river ecosystem. After seeing substantial improvement in pollution reductions in the 1990s, average pollution reductions over the past decade show little additional progress. Progress on sediment pollution controls actually reversed as levels spiked due to large influxes of sediment with major storm events.”

Limiting the use of lawn fertilizers, controlling soil erosion and other actions help reduce overall nitrogen, phosphorous and sediment runoff, protecting the river’s precious aquatic life.

“[Nitrogen and phosphorus] are great at growing plants, but when they get into the river, the excess amount … causes algae blooms, and then when those blooms die, they take oxygen out of the water, and that’s what causes dead zones [in the river, which can’t sustain life],” Ellis explained.

High sediment levels also threaten aquatic life by blocking the sunlight needed for the growth of underwater grasses – grasses that provide valuable food and shelter for aquatic life and waterfowl.

While the River Hero Homes program is intended to improve the river’s vitality, it also helps homeowners save money.

Along with using less water and fewer lawn chemicals, certified property owners receive discounts at several local garden centers, including Cross Creek Nursery & Landscaping, Yardworks, Sneed’s Nursery and others.

Certification also includes a garden flag, window cling and an invitation to the annual River Hero Home Award Party.

For more information on getting River Hero Home certification, visit or attend one of the upcoming information workshops (see box).

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