Blackwater may become ‘Virginia scenic river’

Published 7:36 am Friday, June 26, 2009

FRANKLIN—A 56-mile section of the Blackwater River could soon become the largest single stretch of river to ever be designated a Virginia Scenic River at once.

The Virginia Scenic Rivers Program started in 1970 and aims “to identify, designate and help protect rivers and streams that possess outstanding scenic, recreational, historic and natural characteristics of statewide significance,” according to its Web site.

Officials from the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation evaluated the Blackwater River from Proctor’s Bridge to its confluence with the Nottoway River near the North Carolina border in March and April. They found that it meets the qualifications to be considered a Virginia scenic river. However, there are still several steps that must take place before the designation can officially be made.

“I would say that we’re about halfway there,” said Jane Hill, a project manager in Isle of Wight County’s engineering division.

Isle of Wight and Southampton counties and the cities of Franklin and Suffolk all requested that DCR evaluate the river. As the process moves forward, each locality’s Board of Supervisors or City Council will need to pass a resolution supporting the Blackwater’s designation and then contact their General Assembly representatives to have them serve as patrons for legislation that would make the designation official.

If the river does receive the designation, state and federal agencies will be required to consider the visual, natural and recreational values of the river when planning and issuing permits. It would also give landowners along the river greater voice in the planning of projects that might affect the river and require authorization of the General Assembly for the construction, operation and maintenance of a dam or other structure that will impede the natural flow of the river.

The designation would not impose any land use regulations or restrictions on hunting, fishing or boating on the river or adjacent lands. It would also not affect tributary streams or branches and would not allow for land to be taken using eminent domain.

The river was rated on an array of factors including the presence of endangered species, (both plant and animal), the amount of development around the river, and even the number of bridges.

“We were lucky that the DCR team got to see a lot of wildlife,” said Jeff Turner, the Riverkeeper who patrols the Blackwater and Nottoway rivers. He said that the lack of development along the Blackwater and the presence of endangered species are what make it special.

“So many rivers in the state just have houses built right up on them, but we’re fortunate,” he said. “The city of Franklin sits on it, but that’s only a small area. The rest of the river is pristine.”

While the Nottoway River has received some notoriety, the Blackwater River was relatively unknown outside of the region until the flooding that followed Hurricane Floyd in 1999, according to Turner.

“The Blackwater has always been the ugly stepchild,” he said.

Perceptions of the river being dirty persist, even though the paper mill built holding ponds and Franklin built a wastewater treatment plant decades ago, ending the city’s practice of dumping all of its untreated sewage into the river.

Turner said that while pollution is no longer a significant threat to the Blackwater, storm water runoff and swamp logging are — and they will cause flooding in the future.

“It’s going to end up causing problems,” he said.

If the rest of the process moves smoothly, the river could officially be designated as soon as next year.