A Proposal to Decrease Water Pollution in the James River








The James River is one of the most polluted rivers in the country. In 2012, over 11.8 million toxic chemicals were dumped into Virginia’s waterways. That year, 7,600 pounds of toxins were released in the Lower James River Waterway, ranking it 9th in the Top 50 Local Watersheds for Releases of Developmental Toxins.1 Further, nitrogen, phosphorus, and sediment pollution continue to contribute to declines in the health and habitats of aquatic organisms, threats to human health, and diminutions in safe drinking supplies.2 While serious efforts have improved the state of the river since the 1950s and 1960s when the James was one of the urban-industrial waterways most affected by severe water pollution problems, significant progress can still be made, especially in the realm of nitrogen, phosphorus, and sediment runoff.3


Nitrogen, phosphorus, and sediment runoff pollutants pose both health and environmental risks. Nitrogen and phosphorus, while essential at normal levels for aquatic health, are overabundant in the James River. This profusion of chemical result in algae blooms and thus river dead zones.2 Further, runoff occurs when impervious surfaces do not allow rain infiltration into the ground, thus requiring that it flow into nearby streams and rivers, carrying with it sediment and silt.4 The addition of sediments into the rivers then degrades water quality and leads to increased aquatic problems.5


Targeted Low Impact Development strategies needed. The best approach to decreasing phosphorus, nitrogen and sediment pollutants into the James River waterway is through stormwater management practices. In order to best curb river pollution, I propose working to eliminate water pollutants through Low Impact Development (LID) strategies, or Integrated Stormwater Management. LID has the potential to protect runoff quality, reduce the risk and impacts of flooding, and increase the water supply.6 In this policy memo, I propose three different stormwater management practices and have analyzed each strategy using a weighted decision analysis as a way to establish the most effective and feasible choice.



  1. Do Nothing/Status Quo – this option would continue with current government recommendations.
  2. Green Roof Program – this option would provide incentives for green roof installation on privately owned buildings as well as green roof requirements for new city-owned buildings.7 Green roofs are comprised of an impermeable roof membrane covered with vegetation and a lightweight planting mix with high rates of infiltration. The green roofs will reduce runoff volume and frequency as well as lessen the effects of atmospheric pollution and increase energy savings.8
  3. Stream Restoration – this option would involve modifying the profile and structure of streams by completely reengineering the channels of damaged streams to accommodate increases in stormwater from development.7 Stream restoration brings about not only ecological improvements such as restoration of the stream to its natural state, but also social, economic and health benefits from pollution reduction and flood control.9
  4. “Residential Rainwise” Program – this option would involve instigating a program that encourages residential customers to implement measures such as constructing rain gardens, installing permeable pavements and cisterns, disconnecting downspouts, and improving soil with compost in order to reduce the volume of stormwater sent to public conveyance systems.7



  1. Do Nothing/Status Quo
  • Continuing with our programs in their existing conditions would pose great environmental threats to the James River watershed. Despite current legislation to mitigate pollution, there has only been a 4% change in sediment contamination over the past two While there was more significant change in nitrogen and phosphorus pollution (43% and 75% respectively), more strenuous policies are needed to reduce sediment pollution.2
  • There would be higher social and economic costs associated with this option because the more we allow the pollution of the river, the greater impact is has on both human health and economic health as it causes detrimental effects to fishing, recreation, and tourism.
  1. Green Roof Program
  • The economic and social benefits are high with this option because of the present incentives to build and long-term payback, in one case study totaling $400,000 in savings by year 40. Further, green roofs have longer lives than conventional roofs.7 Finally, green roofs also have reduced replacement and maintenance costs.8
  • Green roofs have high environmental benefits because of their reduction of runoff volume and frequency, improvement of runoff water quality, reduction of effects of atmospheric pollution, reduction in energy costs, and aesthetic benefits.8
  • There may be political pushback from providing incentives to homeowners for construction of the roofs.
  1. Stream Restoration
  • Stream restoration has been found to be the most cost-effective means of controlling sediment, costing on average between $0.60 to $1.00 per pound of sediment managed compared to the sediment removal costs provided by other options (at around $35 and $70 respectively).7
  • Stream restoration has high environmental benefits because it helps reestablish streams and rivers to the state that most reflects its pre-disturbance form. The holistic approach takes into account physical, chemical, and biological components that lead to more resilient systems and less sediment runoff.9
  • There is a high administrative feasibility associated with this option because of the involvement of different stakeholders in the process.
  1. “Residential Rainwise” Program
  • This program would have high social costs because of the weight that it bears on individuals to take action.
  • If fully implemented and adapted, this program could have high environmental benefits because of the collective action of local citizens. The program could significantly decrease flood frequency, reduce flow volume, reduce spot drainage problems, and improve water quality.7
  • This option is economically feasible because of the reliance on individuals to act privately.



As shown in my multi-attribute decision analysis table below, the Green Roofs Program would provide the most benefit to the public, the James River, and the greater environment. This program is the best option because of the combination of government incentive with private action. The low administrative feasibility coupled with high economic benefits creates enticement for investment in this infrastructure. Additionally, this program would provide high environmental benefits that would greatly help with stormwater management and runoff pollution. The second highest option, stream restoration, would also have high environmental benefits but would come at more of a cost economically and administratively. Finally, it is important to note that all three options presented above had higher scores than doing nothing, suggesting that action is necessary and feasible.


Options Effectiveness Admin. Feasibility Social Cost and Benefits Env. Cost and Benefits Economic Cost and Benefits Option Score (Weighted)
Do Nothing 2 3 1 1 1 1.5
Green Roof Program 3 3 2 3 3 2.875
Stream Restoration 3 1 2 3 3 2.625
Residential Rainwise Program 2 3 1 3 3 2.5
Criteria Weight 0.250 0.125 0.125 0.250 0.250


1 = low feasibility, costs are greater than benefits

2 = moderate feasibility, costs and benefits are equal

3 = high feasibility, benefits are greater than costs




  1. Bucci, S. 11.8 Million Pounds of Toxic Chemicalas Dumped into Virginia’s Waterways. Environment Virginia (2014).
  2. Pollution, The James River Association http://www.jamesriverassociation.org/the-james-river/state-of-the-james/pollution (2013)
  3. Progress in Water Quality: An Evaluation of the National Investment in Municipal Wastewater Treatment (Environmental Protection Agency, 2000)
  4. Stormwater Management, Environmental Protection Agency http://www.epa.gov/greeningepa/stormwater/
  5. Erosion, Sediment, and Runoff Control for Roads and Highways, Environmental Protection Agency http://water.epa.gov/polwaste/nps/road_runoff.cfm
  6. Shammas, N. K., Wang, L. K. & Hung, Y. in Handbook of Environment and Waste Management : Air and Water Pollution Control (World Scientific Pub. Co, Singapore, 2012)
  7. Case Studies Analyzing the Economic Benefits of Low Impact Development and Green Infrastructure Programs. Environmental Protection Agency (2007)
  8. Stormwater Management Best Practices, Environmental Protection Agency http://www.epa.gov/greeningepa/stormwater/best_practices.htm#curb
  9. Murdock, J. N. in Encyclopedia of Ecology (eds Jørgensen, S. E. & Fath, B. D.) 3390-3397 (Elsevier, Amsterdam, 2008).

About Polly Ukrop

I am an Environmental Studies senior at Davidson College interested in Corporate Sustainability and the always complicated balancing act of interests that businesses, politicians and society face in working towards a greener tomorrow.

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