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It's time to unplug the Rappahannock
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FREDERICKSBURG-AREA river lovers can now walk on water--sort of. That's because silt is rapidly filling the Rappahannock, creating islands and mud flats, inhibiting boating, and potentially worsening future floods. So far, the response of officials who could help the situation has consisted mainly of finger-pointing.
The problem is part natural and part manmade. Rain washes dirt into the river. Rocks erode. And a fine, sandy silt ensues, flowing downstream. This is normal and, left to its own devices, a river will often build up a sandy shoal big enough to divert its course. In fact, that's where the sand deposits of southern Stafford County and King George County came from.
That's nature's role in the problem. Man's contribution is perhaps more to blame for the current situation in Fredericksburg. Farming and development well upstream along the Rappahannock and its tributaries have removed the riparian buffer--trees and natural growth along the rivers' edges--that helps keep silt out of the water. Embrey Dam used to catch a lot of it just upstream from the city. Some--but not all--of that built-up silt was extracted before the Army Corps of Engineers removed the dam in 2004. But the big kaboom that breached that barrier also released a lot of pent-up sandy soil. The result was immediately apparent: Sandy islands appeared out of nowhere, right abreast of Our Town.
Back then, the Corps of Engineers assured the public that a few gully washers would send that soil downstream. Now, eight years later, it looks like Mother Nature has decided to plant a garden and stay. Trees and shrubs have taken hold, and the islands and mud flats continue to expand. It's clear to almost everyone by now that man must be part of the solution.
Last year, it looked as though the city and the corps were making progress toward that end. They were working on jointly authorizing yet one more study of the silt. But talks broke down over the scope of the survey.
Things aren't made easier by the fact that, although the city is deeply affected by the river, the riverbed itself is in Stafford territory. What's more, counties far upstream--here's looking at you, Fauquier and Culpeper--add to the silt problem.