The Roanoke Valley-Alleghany Regional Commission is soliciting bids in order to contract for residential septic system services during the administration of a septic pump-out program for Roanoke County residents.
Bids must be submitted no later than 5:00 p.m. (Eastern) on Monday, September 12, 2022.
In March, staff had the opportunity to volunteer with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation installing live stakes along a section of Kerrs Creek in Rockbridge County. Live staking, as it’s referred to, is a cost-effective conservation technique used to stabilize streambanks and reduce erosion during rain events. The process involves cutting limbs from a live tree or shrub, and then replanting the limbs, or stakes, in areas with little vegetation.
So, wait. Does planting these things really work? They don’t even have roots!
Well plants are pretty incredible organisms! These stakes have the ability to sprout roots to establish a new tree. This article from Penn State Extension does a great job of explaining how the whole process works.
Live stakes are dipped in water to help prevent stakes from drying out.
It was a really great event to be involved in. Staff worked with students from Washington and Lee who were looking to give back to the community and take knowledge gained in the classroom and apply it to real-life projects. It was great to get to know some of them and talk about their experiences as students looking to get into the environmental field after graduation. In total, the group planted over 300 (!) live stakes in just under four hours.
The planting is a small part of a larger effort being done to improve riparian forest cover in the Chesapeake Bay Watershed. Riparian areas serve as the interface between a waterway and the adjacent land. These areas play a critical role of ensuring that aquatic and terrestrial systems are connected.
A healthy, undisturbed riparian zone will be forested and at least 50 feet wide. These zones are able to ‘buffer’ impacts of land use on a stream system by capturing nutrients and stormwater that may runoff during a rain event. Riparian zones can also stabilize streambanks, help control stream temperatures, and provide food for aquatic organisms. They provide habitat for birds and waterfowl and can serve as wildlife corridors that allow for animals to safely move from place to place and limit habitat fragmentation.
Stabilize streambanks: Tree and plant roots are great at holding soil in place. This is especially important along streambanks that allow water to rip into loose sediment and unprotected soils. By having root structure in place, soil is prevented from washing downstream after rain events.
Stakes were planted along this cut bank to help with stabilization. Tree plantings in the background will help establish a wide buffer.
Control stream temperature: Tree canopy provides shade over a stream to help cool it during hot, summer days. This is especially important if the stream is home to cold water species, like Eastern Brook Trout, that are sensitive to warmer temperatures. Cooler water holds more dissolved oxygen, which is vital for maintaining a diverse community of organisms.
Food for aquatic organisms: Not only will fish be treated to spiders and other bugs that happen to fall off a tree limb, but the tree parts themselves will serve has food for aquatic macroinvertebrate species, or aquatic insects. Some of these species are referred to as ‘shredders’, meaning they consume coarse particulate organic matter like leaves. Shredders also help provide food for insects who are called ‘collector-filterers’. These species collect the bits and pieces of organic matter, like the shredded leaf material that got away, that are caught up in streamflow. These insects are the main food source for many fish species.
Habitat and wildlife corridors: Many bird and waterfowl species find sanctuary in forested areas next to waterbodies, and it’s not just your common sparrow. Bald Eagles prefer to live along waterways so they can have easy access to their favorite meal – fish. Riparian zones allow eagles to build nest in trees located in close proximity to waterbodies. Wildlife also use waterways to navigate between landscapes. The natural ‘roadway’ allows for animals to travel from different areas to access food, escape predators, or reach breeding grounds. Even some aquatic insect species, specifically case-making caddisflies, will use twigs and leaves from riparian trees to make cases for protection and molting.
There are many benefits to having these areas forested and undisturbed. Much of them have been cleared for agricultural purposes or development, but there is an ongoing effort to restore riparian zones and their functions.
This particular planting was funded by one of the many buffer restoration programs available for landowners and communities. The James River Buffer Program offers the chance for landowners to install trees in riparian areas for no cost. The program is spearheaded by three organizations: the James River Association, Chesapeake Bay Foundation, and Virginia Department of Forestry. Landowners in the Middle and Upper James Watershed are eligible for the program. This area is generally defined as the section of the watershed west of the Fall Line in Richmond extending to the headwaters in Highland County. Projects on public lands are also eligible. You can find out more by visiting the website here. Be sure to connect with the program coordinator if you are interested in volunteering!
Volunteers worked in pairs to successfully plant stakes.
I recently came across a video that shows the sheer ferocity and spontaneity of flooding events. In Queensland, Australia, heavy rainfall devastated multiple cities and towns with water that turned shallow streams into ripping rivers. The most amazing, and terrifying, part of this whole event is the quickness in which streams swelled well beyond their banks and spilled high into the floodplain.
Flooding occurs when a large amount of rain falls over a landscape and discharges lots of water in a short period of time. Natural stream systems are designed to mitigate the impacts of heavy rainfall events in a number of ways. Wetlands act as sponges that soak up stormwater and slowly release it into a stream. The sinuosity (how much a stream meanders) of a stream slows the water down and provides more channel to handle larger flows, and floodplains – areas adjacent to streams – allows for stormwater to spill over stream banks to decrease the amount of water that is flowing downstream. All of these mechanisms are important ways a stream system limits the impacts of flooding.
So, if these stream components are effective at mitigating flood events, then why does flooding seem more common and severe?
Part of the problem is attributable to climate change. Climate change will cause changes to local and regional weather patterns that will impact the frequency of high rainfall events. How much a region’s precipitation pattern will change is continuously being studied, and models help show what can be expected for a region. Models show that the Roanoke Valley region can expect to see more rainfall and more severe weather events, which means more flooding.
Climate change is not the only factor. How we manage our landscapes and watersheds – areas that drain to a certain waterbody – has huge implications on flooding size and frequency. In a forested, undisturbed watershed, the landscape is better adapted to handle a heavy rain event. Stormwater is able to infiltrate the ground easily, leading to less runoff that sends rainwater directly to the stream. In the event that flooding occurs, floodwaters are able to spill over into the floodplain to spread out and slow down.
In watersheds with lots of impervious cover, rainwater does not have the chance to infiltrate the soil. Instead, stormwater rushes off hard surfaces and into the stormwater system. This increases the volume of water being discharged into a stream during a rain event. The impact of land use change can easily be seen on a stormwater runoff hydrograph.
1. Image from the Alabama Cooperative Extension website.
The graph is simple: more hard surfaces mean more stormwater runoff, which correlates to higher stream flows during rain events. The result of this change in hydrology is what leads to “flash floods”.
2. Flooding in downtown Roanoke, August 2021.
So, this seems like a big problem, right? How could we possibly fix this?
It is nearly impossible to return to a predevelopment stage. We live in a complex society that requires us to have roadways, commercial and residential buildings, and facilities that are essential for providing community services. There are ways, however, we can manage runoff from developed areas and decrease the discharge of stormwater runoff.
Green infrastructure is a popular way to manage stormwater runoff for multiple reasons. Green infrastructure takes advantage of natural processes to capture, store, and release stormwater runoff. They are effective at reducing the amount of runoff that contributes to the rush of discharge responsible for flash flooding. By collecting water with green infrastructure, we allow for the water to slow down, infiltrate the soil, and slowly release into streams like it would in an undisturbed area. They also capture pollutants, like trash and gas, from impervious surfaces before they have a chance to degrade water quality. This is important for maintaining healthy water quality levels in waterways where people enjoy activities like swimming, floating, and fishing. Green infrastructure helps create a buffer between developed and natural landscapes that are essential for limiting our impact on local ecosystems.
3. Biopond collects stormwater runoff from a parking lot in Roanoke.
We can also encourage our local governments to adopt policies and ordinances that support land conservation. It is important that we take advantage of already developed lands and repurpose them to support the demands of our communities instead of developing natural spaces.
Virginia is working hard to improve flood resiliency. In 2020, Virginia joined the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, or RGGI. RGGI is a cap and invest initiative that serves as a way for Mid-Atlantic states to reduce carbon dioxide emissions from the power sector. Through the effort, states are able to generate funds to support environmental programs.
Proceeds from RGGI auctions help support programs like the Community Flood Preparedness Fund (CFPF). CFPF is designed to support regional and local efforts to reduce the impacts of flooding. Auctions are held quarterly, and the first auction of 2022 generated $72.4 million (!) for Virginia. The most recent round of grant awards was announced in December 2021. The list of funded projects can be found here; see if you can find a project in your community.
The next time it rains, follow the stormwater running off your driveway and funneling down the storm drain. Think about how it impacts the waterway closest to your community and what you can do to help. It could be as simple as installing a rain barrel on a downspout or planting a tree. The efforts we make as individuals and together as a community can improve the health and livability of our region.
The convergence of the Jackson and Cowpasture Rivers signifies the beginning of Virginia’s iconic James River. This river will go through extensive physical and scenic changes before it meets with the Chesapeake Bay almost 350 miles from its start in Virginia’s Blue Ridge mountains. Because of its length and changing character, the James River watershed is broken down into three different subsections: the Upper, Middle, and Lower James River. The Upper James River section is typically characterized as the river area above the confluence of the James and the Maury River at the town of Glasgow. The Maury River runs through the cities of Lexington and Buena Vista and drains a significant portion of the Upper James area. Other notable streams that are a part of the Upper James area include Catawba Creek and Craig Creek.
Image 1. Upper James River Watershed highlighted in yellow.
A unique feature of the Upper James area is that it along the Eastern Continental Divide. The Upper James borders the New River watershed that will end up entering the Gulf of Mexico through the Mississippi River system. It is fascinating to think water from a rainstorm at this border will end up in coastal areas that are thousands of miles apart.
The mainstem of the James River from the confluence of the Jackson and Cowpasture Rivers to the Rockbridge-Amherst-Bedford County line is a part of Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation’s Scenic Rivers Program. To earn the designation of a Virginia Scenic River, a river must meet strict requirements. The designation is not easy to obtain and receiving the label indicates a river possesses outstanding scenic, recreational, historic, and natural characteristics.
The water quality of the James River is influenced by the land use along its banks and the banks of its tributaries. The water quality of the area is generally good, and the mainstem is lined with a riparian buffer that extends along a majority of the reach’s shoreline. This riparian area protects the river from receiving an excess amount of runoff from adjacent lands. The buffer assimilates pollutants from runoff, helps reduce erosion by stabilizing riverbanks, and provides habitat for organisms living in and around the river. The watershed area is mostly forested and rural, but it does contain cityscapes and agricultural lands that influence some of its tributary’s water quality. Non-point sources (NPS) are the main culprits causing stream impairments in the Upper James. Land uses are classified as NPS due to the difficulty of tracing a pollutant back to a specific source. Some examples include agricultural fields, urban areas, and residential septic systems.
Image 3. Scattered throughout the Upper James River are small rapids that will test your paddling skills.
Agricultural fields that allow for livestock to graze directly in streams increase nutrient loads in the water, reduce bank stability, and increase soil compaction around streambanks. Runoff from adjacent fields also impacts water quality. Riparian buffers and fencing along streams can help reduce water quality impacts associated with agriculture. Nutriment management plans can also be an effective way for crop farmers to reduce their environmental impact and save money by having a strategic plan for efficient fertilizer use and land management practices.
Urban areas contribute to stream impairments because they produce a large amount of impervious runoff. Runoff from streets, sidewalks, and parking lots enters the storm system and is released into local streams. The untreated water picks up oil, trash, and other pollutants on paved areas that is carried into the waterway. Increasing infiltration and detaining rainwater during storm events is an effective way of reducing urban runoff. Permeable pavements and vegetated roofs are examples of best management practices that can reduce urban-based pollutants from entering a stream.
Residential septic systems can also be a source of pollution. Unmaintained systems may not operate as designed and can cause excess nutrients from household wastewater to enter a local stream. It is important to regularly pump your septic system (at least once every five years) and limit items that cause clogging from entering the system. This will help limit your system’s environmental impact and reduce the risk of a system failing and causing damage to your house or yard.
Understanding the sources of pollution and the practices that help reduce nutrient impacts on water quality can help us prevent pollution to our waterways. The Upper James does not currently have a widespread problem with stream impairment, and we want to keep it that way. In fact, the 2019 Chesapeake Bay and Watershed Report Card awarded the Upper James with the highest score out of 23 watersheds assessed throughout the Chesapeake Bay watershed. The score is a compliment to the region’s environmental stewardship efforts and local appreciation for keeping waterways pristine.
The entirety of the Upper James River mainstem is a certified blueway known has the Upper James River Water Trail. The trail spans 64 miles through some of the most scenic and undisturbed portions of the entire James River. The Maury River also contains 10 miles of blueway beginning in Lexington. The James River trail is broken down into ten different sections. Detailed maps are available that outline features, including rapids, hazards, and campsites, and can be used to plan your ideal trip.
Smallmouth bass is the most popular fish species targeted by anglers along the blueway. The ideal conditions and habitat of the Upper James help sustain a healthy population of smallmouth bass. When fishing for smallmouth, it is important to locate key water features that indicate ideal habitat. Some features you want to look for are downed trees and submerged ridges. The Upper James also hosts largemouth bass, channel and flathead catfish, and a variety of different sunfish.
There are multiple campsites located along the blueway. Gala, Horseshoe Bend, and Arcadia campsites are located along the Upper James in Botetourt County. These campgrounds are offered through Twin River Outfitters and are conveniently located along different sections of the blueway. Further downstream are Yogi Bear’s Jellystone Camp and Resort and Wilderness Canoe Company camping sites. Camping on the Maury River is available at Glen Maury Park in Buena Vista. Each of these campsites is highlighted on the Upper James River Water Trail maps, making it easy to choose which site will best meet your needs.
There are multiple outfitters that run different trips along the Upper James River blueway. Fishing guides run trips and will help put you on a trophy smallmouth bass. Adventure trips range from day excursions to paddling the entire length of the blueway over multiple days. Linking up with an outfitter is the best way for unfamiliar floaters to get a guided trip along the blueway and learn from folks who are out on the water most every day.
The Upper James River watershed has an endless amount of open water to explore. Visitors come from all over the state and the country to experience the unique adventures on a famous and historic river. Efforts to keep the Upper James reach pristine and untouched will help preserve its beauty, and our downstream neighbors will also appreciate the hard work.
Image 3. A group of paddlers make their way around a riverbend, waiting to see what’s in store.
At the center of intertwining trails running all throughout Douthat State Park lies Douthat Lake. This 50-acre body of water is located on the border of Alleghany and Bath County. Douthat Lake is fed by Wilson Creek, a part of the Jackson River watershed. The creek flows into the Jackson River at Clifton Forge and is the last tributary to contribute to the Jackson’s flow before it merges with the Cowpasture River. The manmade Douthat Lake was constructed in the mid-20th Century, and the state park surrounding it has been around for nearly 90 years. The park is one of the original six state parks planned in Virginia during the 1930s. It is recognized as a Nationally Registered Historic District and has received a number of awards commemorating its success. Whether you want to completely immerse yourself in nature or enjoy the lake’s beauty while being able to grab a snack at the concessions stand, Douthat State Park has what you are looking for.
Image 1. Still water on Douthat Lake reflects the colors of the sunset.
Douthat Lake supports a wide variety of designated water uses, including fishing and swimming. The Virginia Department of Environmental Quality’s 2018 Water Quality Monitoring Assessment indicated that Douthat Lake has the capacity to fully support aquatic life, recreational use, and wildlife. The high-quality status of the lake is attributed to the lake’s management policies and the limited development along its shoreline. The lake’s boat ramp, fishing piers, and swimming beach are located on the side of the lake closest to Douthat State Park Road. Confining these amenities to one side of the lake helps limit shoreline disturbance and preserve natural views of the lake. It is important that visitors of lakeside facilities help keep the lake unpolluted by picking up and disposing trash in the proper containers, keeping fishing gear and line from being lost in the water, and picking up after your pet. Boats that are gasoline powered are prohibited from being used on the lake. This helps keep oil and gasoline from leaking into the water. It also cuts down on shoreline erosion caused by high-powered boat wakes.
The lake’s water quality plays an integral role in maintaining a high number of visitors, especially during the summertime. The lakeside beach is a popular amenity. Increased temperatures during the summer can put stress on less healthy waterbodies, causing algal blooms and other undesirable conditions for swimmers. Fortunately, Douthat Lake is able to sustain a swimmable environment when it is coveted most. When you are out enjoying the lake yourself, remember to keep in mind the important practices that will help keep the water in tip-top shape.
Douthat State Park offers endless activities that cater to all users, from casual weekend goers to high-intensity trail riders and hikers. Over 43 miles of trails weave through the state park surrounding Douthat Lake. The trails come in a variety of lengths, uses, and difficulty levels. Whether you are looking for a flat trail to take an easy stroll or a path to test your mountain biking and horseback riding skills, there is something for you. Waterfalls and scenic overlooks provide points of interests to plan your hike around. Check out the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation’s Trail Guide to find the perfect fit for your adventure.
Camping and lodging around Douthat Lake is widely available. There are over 110 different sites to choose from that accommodate anywhere from 2 to 16 guests. Cabins and lodges are available for those who are looking to have a mixture of outdoor adventure and a cozy living space. Campsites provide RV and tent sites so you can fully immerse yourself in a weekend outdoors. Sites for all different housing styles are available in various areas around the state park, so you can choose if you prefer to have Douthat Lake close by or if you want to escape into a more secluded area. More information about these sites can be found on the Douthat State Park camping webpage. A facilities guide shows where the different campgrounds are located throughout the park.
Image 2. Campers enjoy an evening fire overlooking Douthat Lake.
Douthat Lake and Wilson Creek offer anglers an excellent opportunity to fish waters stocked with various trout species by the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries (DGIF). The area is stocked with brook, brown, and rainbow trout at various times of the year. DGIF’s Douthat Lake informational page provides the stocking schedule and regulations that apply for anglers. The lake is home to many species, including largemouth bass and black crappie. Two fishing piers are located on opposite ends of the lake so shoreline anglers can cast their lines over a large area. Wilson Creek is stocked with trout above and below the lake, so there is plenty of water to explore and find where the fish are hiding.
With Douthat State Park’s close proximity to Interstate 64, an outdoor weekend getaway has never been closer. The park’s versatility gives you the option to spend your time lounging on the beach or exploring the endless miles of trails that surround the lake.
Nestled in the Alleghany Highlands on the border of Alleghany and Bath County lies a western Virginia high-mountain treasure. Lake Moomaw is located on a stretch of the Jackson River that was backed up by the Gathright Dam some 40 years ago. This created a lake with extensive outdoor recreation opportunities and endless scenic viewpoints. The lake is over 12 miles long, covers over 2,500 square acres, and has a maximum depth of 152 feet. A lake of this proportion allows for countless adventures, and with 43 miles of undeveloped shorelines, the lake offers a chance to find your own private getaway spot or favorite fishing hole. Campgrounds, beaches, and trails line the shore and give people a chance to enjoy the lake from its edges. Lake Moomaw’s depth allows it to support a wide range of warm-water and cold-water fish species. The lake offers all types of boating opportunities as well. From kayaking and canoeing to pulling a wakeboarder behind a boat, there is more than enough room for everyone.
Image 1. A tree break on a trail around Lake Moomaw provides a picturesque view.
To support a “two-story” fishery, the water quality of the lake has to remain in good condition so that population levels remain healthy and interspecies competition is minimized. In short, it is important to make sure the lake’s diverse food web is not out of balance. It is also important to maintain good water quality so that visitors are able to safely swim and boat without worrying about getting sick. Having a shoreline that is largely undisturbed plays a vital role in keeping the lake in pristine condition. The lake is not subject to increased nutrient and sediment loads that result from land disturbances and large areas of impervious surface cover. Moomaw and the Jackson River upstream of the lake are located in the George Washington and Jefferson National Forest, a key reason why land disturbance is at a minimum.
Water quality on the Jackson River downstream of the lake is also impacted by the presence of Lake Moomaw. During the late summer months, mountain tributaries can begin to dry up as rain events occur less often. Water temperature increases and dissolved oxygen levels decrease because of more stagnant conditions and less mixing. Moomaw provides this section of the Jackson with a constant supply of water. When levels below the dam become too low, the dam can release a “pulse” of water to help maintain steady flow conditions. This will help keep temperatures cool and oxygen levels adequate to support the section’s trout population that would otherwise be stressed during the hottest time of the year.
Visitors to the lake have a role in keeping the area healthy. Disposal of trash in the proper locations will help keep litter from washing into the lake and keep the waters beautiful. Campers and hikers who bring their pets should pick up after them to keep harmful bacteria out of the water. Boaters should also make sure that their watercraft is operating correctly and has no leaks that may allow oil or other fluids to seep into the water unknowingly. These small efforts will not only be appreciated by critters that call the lake home, but also by your fellow visitors.
Recreational Opportunities on Lake Moomaw
Camping spots are scattered around the edge of the lake, ensuring that a campground is accessible to people coming from all different directions. There are a variety of campground amenities available, from more dispersed and traditional camping sites, to electricity access and RV accommodations. McClintic Point, Bolar Mountain Recreation Area, Greenwood Point, and Morris Hill Campground are the main campsites that offer overnight accommodations. They are usually open from May through September. Some of the campgrounds are easily accessible and close to main roads, and others you may find yourself boating or hiking to. Lake Moomaw also has trail systems located near the Boral Mountain Recreation Area and at the southern portion of the lake. The trails are fully developed can give you the vantage point to take a screensaver worthy picture.
Image 2. Lake Moomaw Recreational Area
The lake is large enough to maintain coldwater and warmwater fish species. This means that species like black bass (small and largemouth) and various trout species can inhabit different areas of the lake that best suit their desired water conditions. Bass can typically tolerate warm waters, while trout prefer cooler and more oxygen-rich water. A lake as deep as Moomaw provides a water column that can offer different types of habitat. Moomaw also supports other species including catfish, crappie, and yellow perch. The good water quality and diverse habitat area gives anglers a chance to catch a variety of different species. There are multiple boat launch sites so that boaters can get out to their favorite spots quickly or explore a new area of the lake. Boat storage is available at the Bolar Flat Marina so that you can bypass the line at the boat ramp on a busy day and spend more time out on the water.
Whether it is soaking up the sun in the summer or appreciating the stillness and beauty that comes after a snowfall, Lake Moomaw is equipped with year-round opportunities so you always have a reason to visit.
Running along the eastern border of the Jackson River watershed is the Cowpasture River. This waterway meets the Jackson River below the Town of Iron Gate where the two combine to form the mighty James River. Although only about 12 miles shorter in length than the Jackson, the Cowpasture River still has a drainage area of about 460 square miles. The Cowpasture River has only one large tributary, the Bullpasture River, which drains the northwestern area of the watershed and joins the Cowpasture around Williamsville. Other smaller mountain tributaries that flow into the Cowpasture River include Shaws Fork, Pads Creek, and Simpson Creek, just to name a few. The river begins in Highland County, running through Bath and Alleghany County before meeting the Jackson River in northern Botetourt County.
Image 1. The Cowpasture River watershed highlighted in yellow.
Like the name suggests, the Cowpasture River is surrounded primarily by agricultural fields. There is no large urban area in the watershed, but communities like McDowell and Williamsville can be found along the banks of the river. The town of Millboro, which straddles the border between the Cowpasture and Calfpasture watersheds, is home to the Cowpasture River Preservation Association, which is actively involved with stewardship efforts. Read further to find out more about recreation opportunities and water quality challenges on the Cowpasture River.
Water Quality Challenges
The Cowpasture River runs shallow and with the clarity of the water, you will be able to see the river bottom during most, if not all, of your float no matter which section you choose. With no large urban area in the watershed, the river system is not exposed to pollutants associated with large-scale street runoff and urban activities. The banks of the Cowpasture’s lower section are well vegetated and supported by established old growth forests.
As you move up the river, an increasing length of the bank is bordered by agricultural fields. The impact this has on the river is evident, as a majority of the Bullpasture River is considered to be impaired due to bacteria contamination. With no major urban areas, the sources of the bacteria can be narrowed down to livestock and on-site sewer systems. Livestock that have immediate access to the river may directly input nutrients into the water via their waste and allow no chance for nutrients to be assimilated by vegetation or for waste to decompose on land. Fencing off streams from agricultural fields can help reduce the amount of nutrients a river is exposed to and allow the shoreline to be restored to its natural state.
Septic systems that are not properly maintained may also provide a source of nutrients to the stream. When systems are not pumped regularly, they may not function as designed and cause some waste to seep into local waterbodies. It is important to make sure your septic system is functioning properly by having it regularly inspected and pumped at the appropriate intervals. This will not only help with reducing waste flow into waterways, but it will also help prevent the system from failing or backing up into your home.
Recreation on the Cowpasture River
The Cowpasture River offers a wide variety of outdoor recreation activities that allow for people to take on a strenuous hike or spend the day on a relaxing float of the river. The river may not have as much public access as the Jackson River, but the on-the-water opportunities it does have are second to none. The shallow water and short water trails give beginner and novice boaters a chance to become comfortable on the water and build skills needed to tackle their greatest ambitions. The seven miles of floatable water at the mouth of the river also gives you a chance to spend all day on the water if you so desire. This section is a part of the Alleghany Highlands Blueway. To learn more about the blueway here, check out the maps located on the blueway’s website. For anglers, it is an opportunity to work on your skinny water casting and sight fishing skills. With clear water, identifying prime fish habitat might be easier. Structures and water features, like submerged trees or eddies, can be difficult to spot on large and deep rivers. Seeing them in pristine, clear water can help you pick them out more easily when moving on to bigger water. Not to mention the clean water of the river is a good indicator that you will be able to put yourself on a fish.
The Cowpasture River offers a range of species to fish for, including smallmouth bass and rainbow trout. The trout fishing is typically better the further upstream you venture and during the cooler months of the year. Public access to the river becomes more difficult above Williamsville and permission from landowners to fish on the river may be required.
The Wallace Tract is located just below Williamsville off of Indian Draft Road. This area does not provide boat ramps, but there is a trail that runs along the river that gives anglers good access to the shoreline to either fish from the bank or strap on some waders and hop in. This site may be ideal for folks who want to avoid fishing in areas with passing paddlers and enjoy some solitude in a secluded area. The Wallace Tract continues to run along the Cowpasture before veering off and ascending up Shenandoah Mountain. Here, it intersects with a road that will connect you to various trails around the area.
Image 2. The Wallace Tract Site
For people who are looking for a float trip on the river, the Walton Tract is a two mile stretch that has boat landings at the put-in and take-out sites. The float takes you on a long bend at the base of Beards Mountain where you eventually wind your way to a swimming hole and the take-out spot. The float offers a chance to catch smallmouth bass or sunfish, and you can even try your luck with hooking an elusive musky. The Walton Tract area also allows visitors to walk by the river on foot and enjoy areas to view wildlife. A footbridge over the river will takes the trail up Beards Mountain. This trail runs along the Beards Mountain ridge and will even connect you with Douthat State Park.
Image 3. The Walton Tract site
The area around and below Interstate 64 is the most accessible stretch of the Cowpasture River. With two public access points, paddlers have the ability to make their float long or short. The Sharon Park and River Access area is 7 miles from the mouth of the Cowpasture River and gives paddlers a chance to maneuver through an extensive stretch of the river. The Cowpasture River is a sinuous river with many bends and meanders, but the beginning section of the Sharon float provides a straight corridor that makes the river seem as if it is a path leading right to the base of the distant mountains. The only obstructions on the river here are bridges for Interstate 64 and Route 269, but they may provide some much-needed shade on a cloudless, sunny day. Paddlers can choose to float almost five miles downstream and exit the river at Evans Tract or continue on towards the James River.
The float furthest downstream will take you on a ride that is over two miles long and brings you to where the James River officially begins. The water trail starts at Evan’s Tract, but you may also find it labeled as the Walter Robinson Canoe Access Point. This last section of the Cowpasture will take you through remote areas that are littered with an array of shale cliffs and shallow riffles. The fishing here provides the best opportunity for smallmouth bass and musky. If you are interested in exploring the trails and floats in the Cowpasture River watershed, check out the U.S. Forest Service’s Interactive Visitor Map.
Image 4. A kayaker and their loyal companion admire the distant mountains around the Cowpasture.
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.
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.