Get To Know The Upper James River Watershed: Upper James River Edition

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.


Water Quality

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.


Recreational Opportunities

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.

Get To Know The Upper James River Watershed: Douthat Lake Edition

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.

Douthat State Park has been acknowledged as one of the top parks in the nation. Clean public areas, campsites, and trails help create a memorable experience for visitors. Water and environmental quality also play a key role in ensuring that the park’s recreational opportunities are placed in an elite category.

Image 1. Still water on Douthat Lake reflects the colors of the sunset.


Water Quality

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.


Recreational Opportunities

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.

Get To Know The Upper James River Watershed: Jackson River Edition

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.