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VCU and the James, a love story

Students wade in the water, researchers study its ecosystems, and artists capture its natural beauty. A look at VCU’s relationship with the James River.

OAP rafting rafting excursion, summer 2017. (Photo courtesy of the Outdoor Adventure Program)
OAP rafting rafting excursion, summer 2017. (Photo courtesy of the Outdoor Adventure Program)

Virginia Commonwealth University and the James River flow together. Students kayak, raft, canoe and wade in the waterway, researchers study its ecosystems, and artists permanently capture its natural beauty. The long-standing relationship between the university and the river in its backyard has proven mutually beneficial. Here are a few examples of how VCU and the James River are inseparable.

 


 

Students prepare to kayak on the upper rapids of the James River during a VCU Outdoor Adventure Program trip on an afternoon in August. (Photo by Tom Kojcsich, University Relations)
Students prepare to kayak on the upper rapids of the James River during a VCU Outdoor Adventure Program trip on an afternoon in August. (Photo by Tom Kojcsich, University Relations)

Riding the rapids

Spray from the upper rapids of the James River is the perfect way to cool off during a muggy Virginia summer. On most Wednesdays, VCU’s Outdoor Adventure Program, part of VCU Recreational Sports, holds introductory whitewater kayaking clinics that launch from Pony Pasture. 

Students pull on kayak skirts and helmets and learn the basics of safety before taking to the rapids. Next, they practice seal entries by sliding down the steps of kayak launches with a splash, and get a crash course on how to safely read a river and avoid strainers, or floating debris. Trained student trip leaders make sure kayakers stay calm and know what to do if their craft tips over, even though swimming is part of the fun.

Kent Fairchild, a student in VCU's M.D.-Ph.D. program, practices a seal entry at a Kayak launch in Pony Pasture. (Photo by Tom Kojcsich, University Relations)
Kent Fairchild, a student in VCU's M.D.-Ph.D. program, practices a seal entry at a Kayak launch in Pony Pasture. (Photo by Tom Kojcsich, University Relations)

The OAP offers whitewater rafting trips throughout the summer. During the fall, students can take in an aerial view of the river during the outdoor climbing clinics at the Manchester Climbing Wall, an abandoned train trestle equipped with bolts and anchors. The OAP also offers afternoon mountain biking excursions, moonlit canoe paddles and other excursions.

Forging a connection with the James River through recreation is a unique opportunity for students due to VCU’s proximity to the waterway, said Joey Parent, assistant director of the OAP.

“We are extremely fortunate to live in a city that has such incredible urban wilderness in its backyard,” Parent said. “It’s important for students to get away and disconnect from the stresses of campus life. The James River provides a unique way for students to do just that.”

River enthusiasts also can get their feet wet as trip leaders. Julie Rothey, who graduated in May with a degree in broadcast journalism from VCU’s Richard T. Robertson School of Media and Culture, trained with the OAP’s student leadership program to lead whitewater kayaking and rock climbing clinics.

 “I love doing these things and I want others to have the opportunity to love these things too,” she said. “I find a lot of empowerment in climbing and whitewater kayaking. To be outdoors, you have to put yourself in situations that push you outside of your comfort zone and prove to yourself that you can deal with it.”

 

Anne Wright removes a memory card from a wildlife camera in a remote area of the James River Parks System. (Photo by Leah Small, University Public Affairs)
Anne Wright removes a memory card from a wildlife camera in a remote area of the James River Parks System. (Photo by Leah Small, University Public Affairs)

Sturgeon, wetlands and wildlife

One might not expect to find coyotes, mink, river otters, wild turkeys and gray foxes in the middle of a city park. But for four years, Anne Wright, coordinator for VCU Life Sciences outreach education, has recorded these animals via cameras placed in remote areas. Footage is available on the Science in the Park website, a resource for information on geology, wildlife and flora in the James River Park System.

Wright has observed animal adaptations and patterns of wildlife movement that indicate improvements in river and ecosystem health.

“It’s a real record of a time and place,” she said.

She has learned that gray foxes can trump red foxes and coyotes in a battle for turf. It’s a story that exemplifies the impact of non-native species.

Red foxes are not native to eastern North America but may have been introduced by English colonists for hunting. The foxes will often cede territory to the coyotes, which can kill them to maintain boundaries. Wright observed that this could open up territory for the gray fox, which is native to Virginia and can escape coyotes.

“Gray foxes can evade coyotes because they have hooked claws and can climb trees,” she said. “They can even den in trees.”

Wright has documented river otters and mink, which shows improvements in the water quality and health of the river. In the 1950s, otters, mink and other species that prefer clean waterways with little or no pollution moved out of the James in Richmond to other areas.

“Mink and otters were extirpated from this part of the James back in the ‘50s when the river was really a cesspool,” Wright said. “It’s good to see them back. The water quality in the main stem of the river has improved and they have migrated back.”

Matt Balazik, Ph.D., on the water for sturgeon restoration work. Numbers of the prehistoric fish are growing in the James River. (Photo by Allen Jones, University Relations)
Matt Balazik, Ph.D., on the water for sturgeon restoration work. Numbers of the prehistoric fish are growing in the James River. (Photo by Allen Jones, University Relations)

An increase in sturgeon, a prehistoric fish that can reach up to 14 feet in length and weigh up to 800 pounds, also signals a healthier river. Matt Balazik, Ph.D., an assistant research professor at Rice Rivers Center who works for the Army Corps of Engineers, has spent the past 10 years tagging sturgeon and monitoring their movements in the James. Since 2009, Balazik and his Virginia Sturgeon Restoration Team have tagged 782 sturgeons.

In partnership with the James River Association, the team also has built three 2,500-square-foot artificial reefs between Presquile National Wildlife Refuge and the Interstate 295 bridge to provide spawning habitat for sturgeon.

Balazik said improvements in water quality and a moratorium on catching Atlantic sturgeon established in 1998 have contributed to the resurgence.

“You can see there is more vegetation on the shorelines, which helps keep sediment out of the river,” Balazik said. “Sediment is a big problem for sturgeon because it can kill their eggs, which are sticky. If there’s a lot of sediment moving around in the water, it will stick to the egg and suffocate it because the egg cannot get enough oxygen.”

Balazik is cautiously optimistic about increases in the sturgeon population, which numbers in the thousands. Water quality and issues resulting from human encroachment on the waterway, such as sturgeon killed by boat propellers, continue to hamper growth. He and his team are studying the swimming and spawning patterns of the fish in hopes of eventually preventing accidents.

Matt Balazik, Ph.D., holds a juvenile sturgeon. (Photo by Ron Lopez)
Matt Balazik, Ph.D., holds a juvenile sturgeon. (Photo by Ron Lopez)

Balazik said the fish’s prehistoric history and its role as an indicator of water quality are reasons to bolster conservation efforts.

“Sturgeon are a charismatic, unique fish. People are drawn to the fact they are 120 million years old,” he said. “They need well-oxygenated waters, so they are excellent indicators of oxygen and sediment levels in the James.”

Both animal and human health depend on clean water. Wetlands are nature’s way of improving water quality through filtration and absorbing sediments before water flows into the James and other large waterways.

Unfortunately, the U.S. has lost 52 percent of its wetlands since colonization and 61 percent of wetlands loss is due to urban and rural development, reports show. The rapid loss has led to numerous restoration projects. Ellen Stuart-Haëntjens, a Ph.D. candidate in VCU’s Integrative Life Sciences program, is one of several VCU researchers studying whether restored wetlands are as effective as natural wetlands at providing ecosystem services such as filtering sediment, storing carbon and preventing flooding.

“Wetlands are really important for water filtration and for storm surges. They suck in a lot of water, acting as sponges,” she said. “Wetlands are the kidneys of the Earth.”

Ellen Stuart-Haëntjens takes a soil sample from wetlands at Rice Rivers Center. (Photo contributed by Ellen Stuart-Haëntjens)
Ellen Stuart-Haëntjens takes a soil sample from wetlands at Rice Rivers Center. (Photo contributed by Ellen Stuart-Haëntjens)

Stuart-Haëntjens is comparing restored wetlands at the VCU Rice Rivers Center, located on the James in Charles City County, to natural wetlands at the center. Conservationists at the center restored Kimages Creek and 70 surrounding acres of wetlands in 2011. The creek was dammed in the 1920s to create Lake Charles. Now, Kimages and surrounding wetlands flow to the James, which allows migratory animals to move upstream again. 

“We don’t really know if the wetlands we are restoring are performing all of those same services, at least to the extent they did before, and millions of dollars have been used for similar restoration projects across the country,” she said.

The restored wetlands are progressing, Stuart-Haëntjens and other researchers have found. Ronaldo Lopez, Rice Rivers Center research associate, and Edward Crawford, Ph.D., deputy director of the Rice Rivers Center, found that one indication of health is a high rate of sediment accumulation, an ecosystem service that helps maintain elevation in the midst of sea level rise. Unfortunately, current accumulation levels in many wetlands across the country aren’t high enough to prevent cities from slowly sinking. Draining aquifers for water consumption, coupled with sea level rise, is decreasing elevation at a rate faster than accretion can currently match.

“Depleting wetlands and draining aquifers is like taking jelly out of a doughnut and causing it to collapse,” Stuart-Haëntjens said. “Richmond and other cities are sinking slightly due to aquifer drainage. So the question is: As sea levels rise, are we accumulating enough sediment to keep up?”

Stuart-Haëntjens cautions that destroying wetlands would lead to major consequences for animal and human life.

“Without wetlands, our fish populations would be harmed because they provide habitat for fish and help prevent pollution and sediment from reaching the James, which also impacts drinking water,” she said. “You probably also would not be able to swim as much in the James River because there would be more algal blooms resulting from pollutants directly entering the river.”

 

Judy Thomas, left; Janet Woody, center; Anne Wright, right, sit in front of Virginia Blue Bell wild flowers in the James River Park System. The women have partnered to create the Plants of the James River Project, an initiative to educate the public about plant species surrounding the James River. (Photo by Leah Small, University Public Affairs)
Judy Thomas, left; Janet Woody, center; Anne Wright, right, sit in front of Virginia Blue Bell wild flowers in the James River Park System. The women have partnered to create the Plants of the James River Project, an initiative to educate the public about plant species surrounding the James River. (Photo by Leah Small, University Public Affairs)

Art and outreach

Art is a tool used to capture the beauty of the James River Parks System and is a cornerstone of VCU environmental preservation efforts.

Environmental advocates and artists from VCU and partner organizations use art and community outreach to protect and restore the James and its environs. Recent efforts include the creation of two coloring books that educate the public about plant species found in the James River Park System, and mural painting to deter graffiti in the parks.

A botanical illustration by Alice Tangerini of an Asimia triloba, or pawpaw plant, which is native to this area. Tangerini graduated from the VCU School of the Arts in 1972 and is the botanical illustrator at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History.
A botanical illustration by Alice Tangerini of an Asimia triloba, or pawpaw plant, which is native to this area. Tangerini graduated from the VCU School of the Arts in 1972 and is the botanical illustrator at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History.

Judy Thomas, Ph.D., a recently retired professor in the VCU School of Social Work, and three other botanical artists, CB Exley, Paula Blair and Betsy Lyon formed the Plants of the James River Project, which led to the creation of coloring books featuring botanical illiustrations of plants that can be found in the James River Parks System. Anne Wright and Janet Woody, the librarian at the Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden, along with other community partners, support the Plants of the James River Project with activity and exhibit space, botanical identification, funding and community networking. 

“Art is nonthreatening and art activities are fun,” said Thomas, a longtime botanical illustrator. “Beautiful botanicals are a pleasure to look at and a great way to educate the public.” 

The second coloring book was released this month at the educational event “Native Plants at the River’s Edge” at the park system headquarters. The coloring book is filled with drawings of plants such as orange trumpet vine, green pawpaw and yellow trout lily, and comes with a color key that shows which colors to use. The illustrations are based on plants selected from more than 400 species of wildflowers growing along the river photographed by Newton Ancarrow, one of the first environmentalists to fight for protection of the James River and its environs in Richmond.

Ancarrow found the flowers in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s as he searched for evidence of illegal sewage dumping in the river. He used slides to educate the public about the importance of preserving flora in the parks. The slides are now in the library of Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden. In 2016, slides from his “Flower Show No. 2 Presentation” were digitized by VCU Libraries in the Ancarrow Wildflower Digital Archive.

“We aim to honor the ecological work and advocacy of Newton Ancarrow and build a regional, cooperative and collaborative community of botanical artists,” Thomas said.

Thomas and 24 botanical artists and illustrators from Central Virginia Botanical Artists, the Botanical Art Society of the National Capital Region and the North Carolina Botanical Artists Circle provided art for the book, designed and produced by the Plants of the James River Project. While Ancarrow’s photos inspired the project, the artists worked in the traditional style of drawing live plants.

The first book, published in July 2017, features illustrations of invasive species, non-native flora that rapidly reproduce and overtake the habitats of native plants. As a result, pollinators and animals that depend on native plants as a nutritional source are disadvantaged and biodiversity can decrease.

Megan Phillips stands next to her owl mural. Phillips and other students in the VCU School of the Arts painted a series of murals meant to deter graffiti in the James River Parks System. (Photo courtesy of the James River Hikers)
Megan Phillips stands next to her owl mural. Phillips and other students in the VCU School of the Arts painted a series of murals meant to deter graffiti in the James River Parks System. (Photo courtesy of the James River Hikers)

“Invasives are commonly found in the James River Park System,” Thomas said. “We wanted the coloring book to help park visitors identify invasives and make them aware of why they are harmful to native habitat.”

Invasive plant species are not the only mar on the beauty of the James River. Graffitti is a constant occurrence in the parks. Ruth Bolduan, a professor in the Department of Painting and Printmaking in the VCU School of the Arts, became aware of the issue during a chat last summer with a neighbor who is a member of the James River Hikers. When the neighbor complained of graffiti on the Texas Beach stair tower, Bolduan knew art could be the solution.

“Every weekend for a year, the James River Hikers had been going to the site and painting over graffiti that was constantly being painted on that stair tower,” Bolduan said. “It was getting really tiresome and she wondered if maybe some kind of mural might help.”

Bolduan had extensively studied the impact of murals on the landscapes of American cities. She found that murals were a major deterrent of graffiti.

“Murals often discourage graffiti. Those who do graffiti respect it,” she said.

That was the start of an independent study project by nine VCU undergraduate students in the School of the Arts led by Bolduan and Michael Royce, a School of the Arts graduate student. From the fall of 2017 until April, the students and an employee of Richmond Parks painted 30 murals of creatures that dwell in and around the river.

Jini Park, a student in the VCU School of the Arts, paints a mural on the Texas Beach stair tower in the James River Parks System. (Photo courtesy the James River Hikers.)
Jini Park, a student in the VCU School of the Arts, paints a mural on the Texas Beach stair tower in the James River Parks System. (Photo courtesy the James River Hikers.)

The graffiti is now masked by otters, herons, bats, owls and other fauna and scenes of James River environs. The Friends of the James River Park, citizen stewards, and the James River Hikers gave the artists a head start by painting the staircase white. Park superintendent Nathan Burrell and park staff approved initial drawings of the paintings and offered suggestions.

So far, there has been little graffiti and the murals remain intact, Bolduan said.

The project has been an opportunity for VCU artists to get out of the classroom and reach out to the community and nature through art.

“I think it was a little out of the ordinary for a lot of students because you know, they’re in painting classes and they’re making their own work,” she said. “All of us felt like we were contributing to another aspect of the river’s beauty.”

A ladybug mural painted by Jini Park, a student in the VCU School of the Arts. (Photo Courtesy of the James River Hikers.)
A ladybug mural painted by Jini Park, a student in the VCU School of the Arts. (Photo Courtesy of the James River Hikers.)