Chesapeake Bay RAVE Dispatch 2 August 11, 2010 from Richmond, Virginia

Remember when every kid had a swimming hole and every river a rope swing? I remember heading down to the creek swinging a metal pail with an apple and sandwich Ma made for me, fishing pole on my shoulder, Albert waiting for me at our favorite spot. Wait, no, that was Little House on the Prairie. But I swam in rivers once, I think. Don’t remember. But I do remember very clearly the day when I was about 9 years old and my mom wouldn’t let us go swimming with a group of kids in the St. Joe River in northern Indiana. A friend of hers had recently gotten a chunk of glass lodged in his leg while swimming in the river, and it was off limits to us ever after.

Not being able to swim in a river on a hot day is kind of like being dehydrated, having a glass of water right in front of you but knowing it is at least a little bit poisonous. It’s torture, the deepest kind of alienation from the earth. But I’ve always figured we were all in the same boat. I didn’t think people swam in urban rivers any more, which is why during my trip to Richmond to cover the James River for the Chesapeake Bay RAVE, my jaw dropped wide open when I saw a whole community of people swimming off the city’s riverbank. My first inclination was to stop the people around me and say, “Did you see this? What the crack are they doin?” Multiple rope swings were set up along a stretch of the river in downtown Richmond. Kids and adults alike waited in line for their turn at the rope. Grown men hollered Tarzan yells and tried to outdo each other when it came their turns. Is this Mars? 1950? A rerun of Gentle Ben?

Few people swim in the Potomac or the Anacostia Rivers, in part because it is illegal in the District of Columbia due to concerns about the health of the water. I once did a triathlon swim in the Potomac, but there were daily tests of the water quality leading up to the event. Had there been a good rain, the swimming portion of the event would have been canceled rather than risk illness of swimming in the river. So seeing these apparently normal human beings swimming in the James made my head spin. It looked like so much fun. It occurred to me, maybe the James is just that much cleaner than the Potomac.

No, not really. The sewage that flows into the river after large rains pours in downstream of where most people swim, which helps increase water quality for swimmers. But the suburbs and rural agriculture runoff that enter the James upstream ensure that unhealthy chemicals and fecal matter are part of the water here just as they are in the Potomac. Swimmers can get ear and intestinal infections, and who knows what else, but the idea of not swimming in the river must be worse than swimming in a polluted river. How’s that for a choice?

On a walk along the James the following morning, I happened across one of the signs the city of Richmond displays to explain the sewage overflow system to its citizens. In an unfortunate choice of colors, the brown sign has a caricature of a fish who looks quite pleased with himself for swimming above the outflows of sewage coming from urban Richmond. The text supports the contentment of the poster-fish, saying the fish and birds are not harmed by sewage because the pollutants are mixed into the river water by the rapids. Water + poo = smiley. The sign also reads: “Releasing storm water here two or three times a year is an economically and socially prudent way to combine the impact of a vibrant urban community with the need for a clean and healthy river.” I’m not sure how putting sewage in the river makes it cleaner and healthier, but I’m no expert. And that fish sure looks happy.

The reflections of the city off the river in soft morning light, combined with thoughts of a city of middle-aged Tarzans hurtling themselves into the James, highlight what an amazing resource the river is. This city seems in the process of a great revitalization. There are terrific restaurants featuring local foods, there are new galleries and river parks, the kind of things that lead to healthier living and greater quality of life. But soft-pedaling the impact of human waste, street and industrial runoff, and agricultural pollutants flowing into the river seems unnecessary. We have made strides on water quality. Many rivers are in better shape than they were a couple of decades ago, thanks to the Clean Water Act. But we have a long way to go before we can tell people they no longer have to make a choice between swimming in our rivers and their health. Pathogens with ominous names like vibrio, cyanobacteria and crypto sporidium, along with mercury from coal plants and nitrates from farm and lawn runoff, pose potentially serious health risks to people and wildlife. Back in the 1950s and 60s we may have had the excuse that we didn’t know the impact of human pollution on our watersheds. We no longer have that excuse. Now it comes down to a choice between making important changes, or continuing business as usual and accepting our alienation from our own rivers.