The James River in Virginia is the longest river in the state and it flows from the Appalachian Mountains to the Chesapeake Bay. For centuries, hundreds of thousands of James spinymussels, small fresh water mussels less than three inches in length, inhabited the James River. They filter water (up to 15 gallons of water a day) and provide food for other animals. Spinymussels were added to the United States endangered species list in the 1980s. Human pollution is considered the reason for the near extinction of the mussels, which have been described as “mostly missing for the past 50 years.”
The absence of the mussels has been a sign of human induced pollution and a wake-up call to address the water contamination. Malacologists, those who study mollusks, have cultured spinymussels at the Virginia Fisheries and Aquatic Wildlife Center’s cooperative freshwater mussel hatchery. Last year, the scientists tagged over 2000 mussels and released them into their natural environment. According to the Chesapeake Bay Magazine, the river’s health has improved as a result of the Clean Water Act (1972) and the actions of numerous partners who have worked to reduce pollution. This broad intervention offers hope that the spinymussels, one of about 80 different fresh water mussels in Virginia, will survive and reproduce once again.
Last year, the Environmental Integrity Project (EIP), a nonpartisan nonprofit formed by former Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) attorneys, published a report on the nation’s fresh waters. The study of all 50 states showed that more than 700,000 miles of waterways (about 51 percent of assessed river and stream miles) are polluted, unable to meet quality standards for swimming, recreation, aquatic life, fish consumption or as drinking water sources. The spinymussles experiment is an opportunity to determine if the water quality in the James River enables an endangered species to live again. “If there is magic on this planet, it is contained in water.” (Loren Eiseley)
Julie Peller, Ph.D., is an environmental chemist (Professor of Chemistry at Valparaiso University ). Julie has been writing a weekly column for the past ~6 years called the Green Junction and is helping to move the call of Laudato Si to action forward. Her Research Interests are advanced oxidation for aqueous solutions, water quality analyses, emerging contaminants, air quality analyses, Lake Michigan shoreline challenges (Cladophora, water, and sediment contaminants), and student and citizen participation in environmental work.