Protecting the Fish Communities in the James River

Many of the nation’s industrial systems rely on surface water to cool their equipment — a process that results in billions of gallons of cooling water per day being withdrawn from waterbodies, the James River included.

A provision of the Clean Water Act authorizes the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to regulate these cooling water intake structures (CWISs) to minimize fish impingement and entrainment.

ONE Environmental Group Principal Kerry McAvoy collaborated on a fish impingement study on the lower part of the James River over a six-month period.

It’s critical for industry to be in compliance with the EPA requirements in place to protect the fish communities and the waterbody.

“We researched which fish are expected to be in the area, what their swim speeds are, where they spawn, and other ecological parameters to determine the risk of impingement,” she says.

Notably in the James River, the Atlantic sturgeon, a federally endangered species, was a primary concern. Fortunately, due to the size and power of these fish, the likelihood of them succumbing to the velocity from the intake structure is unlikely.

The process fascinated McAvoy, excited to examine fish behavior using underwater acoustic cameras that operate similar to sonar. Essentially, the state-of-the-art technology offered a firsthand glimpse of fish activity around the CWIS to determine if fish were actually being impacted or impinged and if so, how frequently. McAvoy also investigated the benthic habitat of the area, taking note of any biological and ecological stressors.

“The facility we were studying had an abundance of fish activity in the area and very little impingement which shows that there is minimal impact to the fish community from the facility’s surface water withdraw” McAvoy says.

McAvoy was able to witness some intriguing moments throughout the study—including a compelling interaction between fish in which a juvenile fish outsmarted a larger predatory fish.

To determine impingement rates, ONE employee, Jamison Clarke was on site twice a week for a 6-month period to observe and record debris and organisms that are impinged on the traveling screens and the corresponding water quality parameters.  While field work never gets old for the ONE team, it did get hot for this project. The team baked in the Virginia heat on the river during the height of the summer.  “The river is stressed during the hottest part of the year,” she says. “That is also when facilities have to draw the highest volumes of water to cool their industrial processes.”

For two full July days when temperatures soared on the James, the team completed benthic sampling to identify the macroinvertebrate and vegetative communities in the area. They coupled that with a site-specific bathymetric survey and velocity profiling to generate images displaying the topographical features of the river bottom and the spatial velocity profiles in the area of influence of the CWIS.

McAvoy looks forward to more impingement and fisheries biology projects.

“This work is important because these regulations are protective of the water and the fish communities that live there,” she says. “It’s important for facilities that use our natural resources use them responsibly.”