For much of the 20th century, the James River became extremely contaminated with acids used in metal production, bases and dyes used in paper manufacturing, and untreated sanitary wastewater. As was common practice in most cities, the James River was used to dilute wastewater and carry it away from populated areas. Sewers constructed before 1950 delivered wastewater directly to the river without treatment. Illness and disease were common occurrences for people who came in contact with the river. In 1954, the City began construction of its wastewater treatment plant, which provided solids removal, also known as primary treatment of wastewater.
The 1972 clean water act, one of the most important and successful Federal laws impacting public health, restricted the release of industrial wastes into water bodies and required the construction of wastewater treatment plants meeting secondary treatment requirements. Richmond's existing wastewater treatment plant, located on the other side of the river just downstream from here, was upgraded to meet the requirements for removing solids and organic material prior to discharge in the James River. Additional regulations such as the Chesapeake Bay Preservation Act continue to require water quality protection measures that result in the removal of nitrogen and phosphorus to protect the James River and Chesapeake Bay ecosystems.
You are surrounded by the infrastructure that makes all this possible Miles of sewers are necessary to collect wastewater and convey it to the treatment plant. Richmond's original sewer system, some of it dating back to the late 1800s, was comprised of pipes that carried a combination of sanitary wastewater and stormwater runoff. No longer constructed, this type of Combined Sewer System (CSS) may be overwhelmed by large rain fall events. In these events, the CSS is designed to overflow at designated locations called combined sewer outfalls (CSO). The original CSS still serves over one-third of the area within the City of Richmond, although only separate sanitary wastewater and stormwater sewer systems have been constructed since the 1950s. The City has invested a large amount of resources to reduce overflows and close outfalls where possible.
The diagram at the right shows how the Shockoe Retention Basin works. During dry weather wastewater flows from the Shockoe Creek CSS area through the large Shockoe Arch Sewer and the Shockoe Diversion Structures to the 96-inch Shockoe Creek Interceptor and ultimately to the wastewater treatment plant across the river for full treatment. During rain fall events, combined wastewater and stormwater flows through the Shockoe Arch Sewer and is diverted into the Shockoe Retention Basin. At the same, the wastewater treatment plant increases its pumping and treatment capacity to maximize the treatment of combined wastewater and stormwater, up to its wet-weather capacity of 75 million gallons per day. The contents of the Shockoe Retention Basin are held here until it can be pumped through large pipes to Richmond's wastewater treatment plant for full treatment.
Despite these major advances, water quality in the James River is far from perfect. The brown color of the water indicates that silt and sediment are flowing off of farm fields, construction sites, and other disturbed lands upstream. Occasionally, due to extremely heavy rain fall events, combined sewer overflows containing untreated stormwater may discharge into the river, though these events have been greatly reduced due to the construction of the Shockoe Retention Basin and other structures. It is advised that you do not swim in the river after heavy rain fall events due to increased exposure to bacteria from untreated runoff.