The James River is arguably the most historic river in the country and one of the most important rivers in the Southeast. With its headwaters in the mountains of western Virginia, the James drains 10,100 square miles (26,164 km2 or 6.5 million acres), roughly 25 percent of the state’s land area, and flows east for a distance of 333 miles (536 km) to empty into the Chesapeake Bay at Hampton Roads. Draining more than 15 percent of the Chesapeake Bay’s 64,000 square-mile watershed, the James River is the second largest tributary to the bay.
Flowing out of the Piedmont region of Central Virginia, the James descends rapidly through the city of Richmond into the broader and quieter waters of the Coastal Plain. The Rice Center is located along this stretch of the river, about 40 miles (64 km) below Richmond. Here, about 74 miles (119 km) upstream of the Chesapeake Bay, the river is tidally influenced but the water remains fresh (by definition less than 0.5 parts per thousand salinity). The river at this location forms a unique ecotone between inland and coastal regions that supports a diverse, transitional fauna of marine, estuarine and freshwater species. Tidal freshwater ecosystems occur at the Rice Center but are among the most poorly studied riverine habitats in the world. At the Rice Center, one of our main areas of research is the James River, as we attempt to better understand this temporally and spatially dynamic system and its linkage with its watershed.
1 Smock, L.A., A.B. Wright, and A.C. Benke. 2005. Atlantic Coast Rivers of the Southeastern United States. Pages 72-122 in A.C. Benke and C. E. Cushing (editors). Rivers of North America. Academic Press, New York.