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.