Congressmen visit to hear river basin plan

Published 11:50 pm Tuesday, October 7, 2008

FRANKLIN — U.S. Reps. Randy Forbes (R-Va.) and John Boozman (R-Ark.), two officials central to the effort to get Congress to fund a half-million-dollar study of the Chowan River Basin, met with local leaders Tuesday to help kick off a smaller, $90,000 project to be performed by the Army Corps of Engineers.

The Corps will install six stream gauges at undisclosed locations along the Meherrin, Nottoway and Blackwater rivers, which together comprise the Chowan River Basin. Future plans call for the installation of additional stream gauges, and also for rainfall and water quality gauges.

Southampton, Greensville, Sussex, Surry and Isle of Wight counties, and the cities of Franklin and Emporia, together provided $45,000 toward the Corps’ project study. The federal government paid for the other half of the project.

Many elected officials from those communities were present for Tuesday’s meeting with Forbes and Boozman.

“We are thankful you all could be here and hear our plea,” said Franklin Mayor Jim Councill.

Forbes has been pushing Congress to fund a more comprehensive study of the watershed, which in the last 10 years has had record flooding six times. That federal study would look at flood risk management, erosion, navigation and environmental needs within the Chowan River Basin, and would also be done by the Corps.

Boozman, the ranking member of the transportation subcommittee on water resources and environment, praised the cooperation among the localities.

“I’ll help you any way I can,” Boozman said.

According to Forbes, the House of Representatives and the Senate still have to agree to appropriate the money for the half-million-dollar project. Another roadblock is a moratorium on starting any new projects for the Corps to work on, at least until a current list of projects has been paid for. Forbes said the moratorium has been in effect “for a few years.”

But some exceptions — “six or seven,” according to Forbes — have been made to the moratorium during those years.

Boozman said the cooperation displayed so far among the affected localities could help make the case for the Chowan study to be another exception. So could the study’s relatively cheap cost, when compared to other projects.

“Some of the projects (being considered by the Corps) cost billions of dollars,” Boozman said.

Tuesday’s meeting marked the beginning of the $90,000 project.

“This is a red letter day,” said Mark Mansfield, the chief of planning and policy from the Corps’ Norfolk District.

During a comment period, Joe Lomax with the Virginia Department of Transportation said 70 percent of the roads in the area were impassible after the 1999 flooding.

“(U.S. Route) 460 was heavily impacted,” Lomax said, adding that the flooding blocked the evacuation route of military personnel based in Hampton Roads. U.S. Route 460 is also a hurricane evacuation route.

Forbes said the flooding of U.S. Route 460 was a national security concern.

Hampton Roads “kind of had a claustrophobic effect,” he said, when U.S. Route 460 was flooded. Forbes added that if the Hampton Roads region had to evacuate its 1.6-1.7 million people in a 48-hour period, only about 700,000 would be able to escape before flooding would prevent a further exodus.

Lomax added that U.S. Route 58 was also prone to flooding, closing off another potential evacuation route from the Atlantic coast.

Mansfield made a correlation to hurricanes Dennis and Floyd, which came one after the other in 1999. “‘Event 1’ dampens the ground,” he said, “and then ‘Event 2’ doesn’t have anywhere to go.”

Other possible causes for the flooding, according to speculation by several officials in the room, included felled trees that were blocking rivers in the watershed, the encroachment of development, and the accumulation of silt in tributaries and reservoirs.

“Without the ($500,000) study, we won’t really know,” said Forbes.

When asked if he thought the $700 billion Wall Street bailout passed by Congress last week would affect the process of having the federal study appropriated, Forbes said yes.

“There is no question,” he said.