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Two mountain rivers converge in northern Botetourt County to form Virginia’s most well-known and historic waterway, the James River. The Jackson and Cowpasture Rivers begin in Highland County and flow south through Bath and Alleghany County before converging below the Town of Iron Gate.

The Jackson River watershed extends from the town of Monterey down through portions of Craig County and even crosses the state boundary into West Virginia. Dunlap and Potts Creek drain the southern portion of the Jackson watershed. Both of these tributaries meet with the Jackson mainstem at the City of Covington. With such an extensive amount of headwater streams, the watershed is filled with hidden gems that may only be known by a handful of people.

Image 1. The Jackson River Watershed highlighted in yellow.

Before its convergence with the Cowpasture River, the Jackson River drains over 900 square miles of land that has a wide variety of uses, including cityscapes, agricultural fields, and National Forest area. The City of Covington, located in the Alleghany Highlands, is the watershed’s largest urban area and contains many river access points where boaters can start their journey exploring the lower portion of the Jackson River. Interstate 64 runs parallel with the lower stretch of the Jackson River, making public access points easily available for visitors coming from around the region. This stretch of the Jackson River offers anglers exceptional smallmouth bass, sunfish, and rock bass fishing. For anglers looking to go after coldwater fish species, the Jackson River above Covington offers the best chance of landing a trophy trout.

Water Quality Challenges

The beauty and environmental quality of the Jackson River can be attributed to the extensive amount of undisturbed land in the area and a regional understanding of the importance of being an environmental steward. Water quality in the watershed is generally good, as indicated by the Jackson’s ability to be home to trout species and other aquatic organisms that are indicators of good stream health. Like many watersheds with areas of development and agriculture, the region is not immune to pollution that comes as a result of various land uses. Urban and agricultural pollution differ in the sources of pollution and how it affects the environment, and thus they require different ways to address decreasing the impacts.

Agricultural pollution occurs both when land is grazed by livestock or used for cultivation. Livestock waste and excess fertilizer runoff can expose a stream to large amounts of nutrients that bring a change to its ambient conditions. Fields that allow livestock to graze directly in a stream increase the rate of bank erosion and are immediately exposed to livestock waste. It also means that a bank lacks a riparian zone, an area along a streambank that has vegetation. These zones are important for maintaining streambank stability, regulating water temperature, and limiting nutrient runoff from nearby fields. State and local agricultural agencies have a variety of programs available for producers to install conservation practices on their land. These programs help subsidize the cost of implementing best management practices (BMPs) that not only help reduce the impact on the environment, but also help increase livestock health and crop yields. Contact the Mountain Soil and Water Conservation District for more information about how to install a BMP on your property.

Waterways are also impacted by urban areas and impervious surfaces. Streets do not allow water to infiltrate the ground and force the water to runoff into the local sewer system. These systems do not receive treatment and runoff directly into local waterways. Urban areas have a high concentration of impervious surface, which can greatly increase pollutant loads into a stream from a city or town. Lawn fertilizers, grass clippings, and pet waste may also find their way into the sewer system during a rain event and contribute to the nutrient loads. Green infrastructure are innovative pollution control practices that can help reduce runoff and increase the amount of greenspace in a community. The idea is to capture impervious surface runoff before it reaches the sewer system, so that natural processes can sequester pollutants and reduce the amount of nutrients entering a waterway. Structures include detention ponds, green roofs, and vegetated swales. All of these BMPs are designed to capture stormwater and filter pollutants. Residents are also encouraged to install BMPs on their properties. Rain barrels and rain gardens are practices you can install around your home to help reduce nutrient loads from your yard. Rain barrels allow you to reuse rainwater and help save you money on your watering bill. Pollinator species benefit from the native flowering plants that are found in rain gardens.

Management practices on all different types of land uses can help beautify your community and improve water quality in your waterways. The Jackson River’s journey through Appalachia is one with many twists and turns, hidden fishing holes, and picturesque river views. Whether you are a summer floater who enjoys sunshine and greenery, or a leaf peeper looking to capture the foliage color change and watch freshly fallen leaves be taken away by the river’s current, the Jackson River will be available year round to help you escape into nature.

Image 2. The Jackson River follows a bend lined with colorful foliage.

Recreational Opportunities

Rainbow and Brown Trout can be found both above and below Lake Moomaw, located at the Bolar Mountain Recreation Area. The Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries has designated the area of the Jackson River between the Gathright Dam and the Covington Water Treatment Plant as fishable trout waters, although areas along this stretch may not be open to the public. Be sure to check out the maps on the Alleghany Highlands Blueway website to see where private property rights may apply.

Image 3. A group of kayakers enjoy a summer day on the Jackson River.

Along with the ample floating opportunities the Jackson River blueway provides, people can utilize the Jackson River Scenic Trail as a way to explore the river from its banks. The trail extends over 14 miles from Covington up to Lake Moomaw. The trail was created by converting an old railroad bed to a gravel path that is ideal for people who enjoy exploring the outdoors at a relaxing pace. With its close proximity to downtown Covington, it gives locals a chance to observe a wide range of wildlife or watch as paddlers make their way downstream. The trail also hosts community events, including the annual Jackson River Marathon. This event includes a full marathon race, a half marathon, a 10K and a 5K race. Each race starts and finishes at the Intervale Trailhead and provides scenic views of the surrounding mountains and the Jackson River.

With so many outdoor recreation opportunities, the Jackson River watershed is a western Virginia gem that all Virginians should venture to in their lifetime.

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