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Last updateThu, 19 Nov 2015 8pm

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Heavy rains back to back not great for fish

It is springtime, and we do typically get some gully washers during the spring in Virginia. From a fisheries’ standpoint, a good soaking rain is not a bad thing. However, a gully washer that puts down inches of rain in a short period of time is an event of concern. Rain that comes down that hard leaves little time for the water to be absorbed into the ground. Instead, it rolls downhill, taking anything that floats or suspends with it.


When I think of things that suspend, the list goes on and on. I think about the last time I was in Home Depot or Lowe’s and how more than a few carts had fertilizer, weed killer or other “cides” in them. That stuff ends up in our creeks, tributaries and streams, meaning they eventually end up in our rivers and the Bay.

I also think about all of the pavement we have in Virginia and not just from roads. Roads are certainly a big portion of runoff area, but even roofs, parking lots and concrete structures are numerous. A lot of water is NOT absorbed by these things that could be partially absorbed or filtered by grass or vegetation if we had more of the natural, and less of the manmade.

Years ago, I purchased a few rain barrels in an effort to reduce my electric bill. I parked the barrels under two different downspouts and waited for the next rain. Our house is not very large at all, so I did not expect to catch much water from a single rainstorm; I was so wrong. The first rainstorm we had was a steady shower. I stood on our back step and observed the water gushing out of the downspout into the barrel for a few minutes. I quickly realized I did not plan very well. Within ten minutes, the barrel was overflowing. I had to run out and attach some hoses to the overflow ports and run it away from our house. Both 80-gallon barrels were overflowing from a little over ten minutes of steady rain! When I apply this thought to the miles of pavement or concrete we have in the watershed, I cringe. It is really no wonder why we have so much water cascading down our rivers each time it rains.

I stood at the dock at Hopyard on Saturday and was pretty impressed (in a bad way) how fast the river as flowing, the fact that it was over the dock and how nasty brown it was. When that water washes off pavement or concrete, or out of fields, off lawns and down gullies, it carries a lot of poisons with which we saturate our grounds and plants, but it also carries sediment with it. Some of you may be becoming suspicious that I am some “nutty tree hugger” at this point. I assure you that I am neither an environmental extremist, nor a believer in the end of our planet in the near future due to global warming. This statement is sure to make some start to howl, but so be it. However, I am very concerned about the way we are developing land and the way we are using poisons to have a “quick fix” for a problem.

The sediment issue is of real concern to me. Other than my time in the Marine Corps, I have lived in the area all of my life. The Rappahannock River has changed tremendously over that time. Much of the change is in the form of sediment. At one time, the river at Falmouth had many deep holes. Now, it has very few, if any. I quit fishing the river there because it is so shallow. Old Mill Park used to have some very deep holes and swift currents; now it has few. The stretch from the City Dock to Old Mill once held a relatively deep channel years ago. We often fished at Chatham for perch in the spring. The deep water is so scarce, very few people bother anymore. In fact, the mud and silt flats make it a very delicate operation to run a small boat up there.

A few weeks ago, my wife and I tried to run our little Jon boat up from the City Dock and hit mudflat after mudflat. This was at high tide, too. It was not worth going upriver. Some will say that the silt is from when the dam was blown; perhaps some of it is. But, the problem was present prior to that. These heavy rains that fill our river with sediment and high water are not good for the spring spawn. In fact, these conditions make for poor spawning conditions and higher mortality, and even near failures for fish some years.

A lot of dirt is in both of our rivers these days. This dirt ends up in the Bay clouding the water, cutting submerged aquatic vegetation (SAV) growth and starting a vicious cycle where we have less vegetation and more erosion and sedimentation. Less vegetation also creates a host of other problems for our fisheries. Much of the crabs’ plight is due to lack of habitat to include SAV.

So what do we do about this? I would love to see some hard figures from the Army Corps of Engineers on the depth of the Rappahannock River in various places over the years. The Chesapeake Bay Foundation monitors SAV, as does Virginia Institute of Marine Science (VIMS). The VIMS site said, “Since the 1950s, there has been a tremendous decline in SAV due to degraded water quality. In 1972, incredible amounts of rainfall and runoff caused by Tropical Storm Agnes dealt a final blow to many grass beds.”

Perhaps we can be more careful about how we develop near water, to start with. We may need more serious regulations with regard to building roads and other development. I don’t think the idea will be well received, and I doubt many people will find it painless, either; particularly developers and those in Northern Virginia. But, the likely alternative is a continued decline of the health of our rivers and bay. I suppose we have a choice to make- Do we want a healthy bay, rivers and fisheries that sustain our need for food and desire for recreation and help us have clean water, or do we want more roads, quicker commute times, more malls, stores, houses on the water, and so on? For some, it is a tough choice. For others, it isn’t.  I know what my choice would be. Do you know what you want?

 

Mark Fike

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