The News Desk is a collection of news, notes and breaking items affecting the Fredericksburg community.
Problem is sedimentary, my dear
By RUSTY DENNEN
A flotilla of seven canoes, with two riders each, eased into the Rappahannock River a little after 6 on Thursday evening from the rocks at Old Mill Park.
The group, including several City Council members, businessmen, conservationists and others, were not there for the scenery, watching blue herons or fishing. At dead low tide, they were there to see, firsthand, how parts of the river are being choked with silt.
Sand, gravel and mud—some of it microscopic, has been flowing down the Rappahannock River for eons.
But some say it has become a big problem, prompting the creation of an informal committee to explore whether a dredging project at Fredericksburg is feasible.
At the put-in, Bill Micks, co-owner of the Virginia Outdoor Center and a member of the committee, pointed out rocks and gravel on the bottom. About a hundred yards down river, he plunged his hands into the bottom, pulling up nothing but fine, brown sand.
“See how much it’s changed already,” he said.
Farther down, across from the old Embrey power plant, the group pulled over at a sand island that occupies acres where the river once flowed.
“Welcome to Madison County,” John Tippett, executive director of Friends of the Rappahannock, also a member of the committee, said, only half joking. The island began forming after major flooding in Madison County in 1995 and 1996. But that’s just one source of the material.
Vast shoals have accumulated from the Falmouth Bridge to City Dock. It’s become so thick that some areas are only a few inches deep at low tide.
“We want to educate the [City] Council,” and officials in Stafford County, who control the waterway up to the Fredericksburg shore “on how bad the river is,” Charles G. McDaniel Sr., a Fredericksburg businessman who heads up the river-dredging committee, said in an interview earlier this week.
Along with McDaniel, Tippett and Micks, committee members include: McDaniel’s son, Richmond; Bruce Lee and Thomas J. Wack, both local businessmen; Charles Payne and Phillip Sasser, local attorneys; Claude Shaffer, who has proposed a dredging plan; and Joe Wilson, a member of the city’s Economic Development Authority. The group first met in June.
“We see this as a fairly long-term project. We’re just trying to get somebody to seriously start” to address it, McDaniel said. “The city’s got to take the lead, just like they took the lead in [the removal of] Embrey Dam.”
Fredericksburg worked with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and a host of other partners to remove the 1910 dam in February 2004 to allow the passage of migratory fish.
‘YOU CAN’T USE IT’
McDaniel, who lives along the Rappahannock in the city, said the problem is easy to see.
“The river is now to the point where islands have built up. You can’t use it .”
Another worry: higher water during floods.
And there’s an economic impact, he said: “People don’t want to establish a business when they’re looking at a mud flat.”
McDaniel said he’s drafted a letter to City Council, outlining the committee’s concerns and some recommendations that he’ll present at the Sept. 11 meeting.
Committee member Joe Wilson said the scope of the problem needs to be better understood, if the river is to remain navigable.
“That’s the whole idea: Nobody knows until we do some investigation . And if you’re going to develop Riverfront Park [on Sophia Street], you probably would want to have some sort of small-craft accessibility. Right now, you can’t get up there,” he said.
For years, Wilson has asked city officials to look into dredging. The topic of silt came up two years ago at the EDA’s long-term planning session. At the time, Wilson, an authority member, suggested the group consider paying for a study to gauge the impact on flooding and navigation.
The latest initiative to address the silt came in the spring of 2011. City Manager Beverly Cameron asked the Corps of Engineers to study the impacts of sediment buildup on flood levels, navigation and the river ecosystem, along with the feasibility of dredging or a stream restoration project.
The agency earlier this year said it would take another look at the problem—at sources of sediment in the river, solutions to stopping the material from reaching the Rappahannock in the first place, and ways to improve aquatic habitat. However, the effort has been shelved because the city and the Corps could not agree on the scope of the review.
Some have criticized the Corps of Engineers for contributing to the sediment problem after the removal of Embrey Dam.
Prior to the breach, a contractor removed about 240,000 cubic yards of sediment, placing it in a pit behind the Bragg Hill apartments. But a large amount of sediment remained and washed downriver.
An official with the agency said at the time that not all the silt was coming from behind the dam.
Unusually wet weather that year, and other factors, contributed.
In April, Claude Shaffer, who is retired and lives in Stafford County, proposed removing more than a million cubic yards of silt in the five-mile stretch from the Falmouth Bridge to Fredericksburg Country Club. He estimated it would take over three years to remove that massive amount of material. An average-size dump truck can haul about 5 cubic yards.
Shaffer said he and a Tennessee-based partner, who is in the dredging business, would remove the silt and sell the sand and gravel to cover their costs and make a profit.
But they would have to clear some steep regulatory hurdles before any work could be done, a process that could take years.
Decades ago, a river channel was dredged and maintained by the Corps of Engineers for commercial boat traffic, but now only one vessel—the City of Fredericksburg riverboat—ties up at City Dock.
Now, McDaniel and Wilson say they want to work with the city, Stafford and Army Corps of Engineers to get things moving again.
Any plan would hinge on the federal agency.
“Our challenge is to enlist their aid to come up with a satisfactory solution,” Wilson said.
Tippett says sediment is a major problem affecting the waterway, smothering aquatic life and clouding the water, robbing plants of sunlight. Removing it can cause damage, too.
“We have no problem with dredging, as long as it is done in a way that protects the environment,” he said this week.
Micks added: “All of us have seen what’s happened over the last four or five years. Any time you get a rain event and high water in the Rappahannock,” vast amounts of sediment flow downstream.
“The short version is: People are concerned.”
Rusty Dennen: 540/374-5431