The beautiful and leisurely cruise down the Occoquan River enjoyed by thousands of recreational boaters is now a whole lot safer.
After more than three years of planning, studies and federal funding cycles, the six miles of the Occoquan River from the town of Occoquan to the Potomac River has been dredged.
The dredging has been a priority to local, county and federal leaders who have said it was vital, not only for recreational boaters but commercial users of the river, the construction of the new Va. 123 bridge and the revitalization of Occoquan.
“It’s a lengthy process, but once you get through it, it is worth the wait,” said Steve Garbarino, Occoquan dredging project manager for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. “It is going to be a lot easier to get in and out of the river.”
The dredging got under way in early January. It was completed in mid-March.
Many of the 2,500 recreational boaters who call the Occoquan River home will gather Saturday for their annual Blessing of the Fleet, which kicks off the boating season. This year the event also will celebrate the completion of the dredging.
“I know that the channel is very much improved,” said Chris Webster, coordinator of the Occoquan River Maritime Association. The association, established in 1999, is a federation of business, marinas and yacht clubs along the Occoquan as well as others interested in promoting the health and the future of the river. It was instrumental in advancing the effort to have the river dredged.
Webster, along with others who have already been out on the river, has noticed the difference that the dredging has made.
“There is a lot of buzz about it,” Webster said. “It’s all been very good and very positive.”
“We’ve been out on the river several times [since it’s been dredged],” said Rick Sorrenti, commodore of the Occoquan Yacht Club. “I think it’s a tremendous improvement.”
One notoriously dangerous portion of the river near the Belmont Bay Marina where shoaling had compromised the depth to as low as 2 or 3 feet has been dug out.
“At low tide, it’s now 10 feet deep,” Sorrenti said. “They did a really great job.”
The Occoquan had not been dredged in 43 years and gradually with each passing year more silt has settled in the river’s bottom. Over the last five years, more and more recreational and commercial boaters began experiencing groundings and damage to their vessels due to the shallow channel.
Since the river is a U.S. Coast Guard designated channel that must be federally maintained, the Occoquan River Maritime Association and others turned to U.S. Rep. Tom Davis, R-11th District.
Davis, whose district includes the portions of Prince William and Fairfax counties near the Occoquan River, has worked since 2001 to secure $4.7 million in federal funding for the dredging project.
Prince William and Fairfax counties also picked up about 10 percent of the project’s overall cost.
During the dredging, between 30,000 and 35,000 cubic yards of material were taken out of the river and sent to the Prince William County landfill, Garbarino said.
As part of the project, the Army Corps of Engineers also realigned some of the channel.
“We took advantage of some of the natural depth in the river,” Garbarino said. “That saved time and money.”
The portion of the river between U.S. 1 and down toward the Potomac River and around Belmont Bay had the most problems with shoaling, Garbarino said.
While there were a number of problem areas, on the whole, “this is actually a rather wide channel,” Garbarino said. “[With the dredging complete,] there is plenty of room to maneuver.”
The channel now is about 150 feet wide and 9 feet deep.
“Everyone is quite pleased,” Garbarino said.
Webster pointed out that it is not only the recreational boaters who will benefit from the dredging.
“There also is a lot of commercial activity,” Webster said. “There are marinas, businesses and restaurants that rely on it.”
Likely the largest commercial user of the river is Vulcan Materials, which yearly moves 100 million tons of sand by barge through the Occoquan and Potomac rivers to Maryland.
The maritime association estimates that if Vulcan stopped using the river and moved its sand by highway, as many as 20,000 dump trucks a year would travel the highways and over the Woodrow Wilson Bridge, Webster said.
“The money spent on the Occoquan channel is a substantial return on the investment, especially when you compare it to the amount of increased traffic that would be put on the roads,” Webster said.
Another benefit of the improved channel is the accessibility it creates for the Virginia Department of Transportation as it works to replace the Va. 123 bridge.
Just last week, a large piece of the bridge’s infrastructure was floated by barge up the river.
“That could not have happened if the channel was not deep enough,” Webster said.
A safe and deep channel also is crucial to the town of Occoquan’s efforts to re-establish itself as a port, many have said.
“The completion of the Occoquan dredging project marks a great day for the continuing renaissance of the town of Occoquan. In fact, this project is part and parcel of our efforts to revitalize the riverfront,” Davis said.
“Thanks to the dredging, the river is now much safer for recreational boaters and commercial traffic,” Davis said. “A new deeper, wider channel, coupled with better access to the town via docks and other enhancements, means that individuals and families can again enjoy the attractions, shops and restaurants of Occoquan via the river, rather than just via I-95 or Route 123.
“I am pleased to have secured federal funding for this project … and I am also very proud to have worked with local and state elected officials and civic leaders to finally bring this important project to completion,” Davis said.
A reception for Davis, hosted by the maritime association, to thank him for his help in securing the federal dollars for the dredging will be held following Saturday’s blessing.