State Scenic River recommendations might be entering a period of drought in Rappahannock County.
At the end of a day during which it heard dismaying estimates of drought-related crop damage in the county, and heard others caution against “giving away” river-related rights to the state for a variety of reasons, the county Board of Supervisors declined Monday night to recommend State Scenic River status for an eight-mile stretch of the Hazel between Route 231 and the Culpeper County line.
It was a break with recent tradition.
Last year the board voted to recommend that the General Assembly award, as it eventually did, the primarily honorary designation to stretches of the Hughes and Jordan rivers. But the final supervisors’ vote on the Hazel — three against, one in favor, one abstention — seemed to reflect both a cooling of its relationship with the state’s Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR) and a growing worry about water supply, not just in Rappahannock County but downstream and across the state.
Supervisor Ron Frazier, who voted against the designation along with chairman Roger Welch and supervisor Bryant Lee, criticized an early-draft report on the Hazel’s eligibility produced by DCR, which administers the Scenic River Program. The report said the Hazel met only three of 13 criteria for scenic designation.
“There are the criteria, and there are people downstream who don’t want it declared scenic because of the domino effect,” Frazier said, referring to several Hazel River landowners in Culpeper County who attended both last month’s and Monday’s supervisors meetings to object mostly to a clause in the Scenic River law which forbids building a dam “or other structure” that impedes the natural flow of the river without first getting the General Assembly to pass an act permitting it.
The Culpeper landowners said Rappahannock’s recommendation would “encourage” Culpeper County’s supervisors to follow suit.
“And,” Frazier said, “we have property owners in this Rappahannock County segment of the Hazel who are opposed to it.
“My question is, ‘How did it get this far?’”
Said Lee: “I remember when we voted to recommend the Jordan as scenic. This entire room was full, and everybody was for it. That’s not the case this time.”
Stonewall-Hawthorne District supervisor Chris Parrish, through whose district this stretch of the Hazel runs, cast the sole vote in favor of the recommendation (actually it was a vote against Frazier’s motion to oppose the scenic designation, after Parrish’s motion to approve it died for lack of a second). Piedmont District supervisor Mike Biniek abstained from voting on Frazier’s motion.
“I’ve had calls from about a dozen owners of property along the Hazel, and only today was I made aware of one landowner who is opposed,” Parrish said. “These are my constituents, and we live in a democracy, and the majority rules.”
Parrish said if it were the Thornton River, which runs through his property, “I wouldn’t want this. But I’m not voting on my river, I’m voting on these people’s river, and they want this.”
Parrish also said he believed scenic river designations — this would have been the county’s fourth (the Rappahannock River was among the state’s first Scenic Rivers) — would count for a system of clean-water “credits” which he believes will be established in the state, eventually.
“Rappahannock could end up selling credits downstream for providing the water — clean water — that communities, such as Fredericksburg, use. This money would go into our general fund and help reduce the property taxes of Rappahannock’s citizens,” he said.
While Frazier said the water-credit idea sounded “nebulous,” it was relevant to another vocal opponent of the Scenic River designation who spoke during the public-comment portion of Monday’s meeting: Bill Fletcher.
Fletcher, like other farmers in the county, has family connections to the county that are counted in centuries — saying he’d spent “a lifetime here, and during that lifetime, and especially since 2000, I’ve watched the water just disappear.”
Eight streams on his farm at Fletchers Mill, along with five creeks and two wells, he said, have gone dry. At his Miller Farm on Route 231, he’s reduced his cattle from 150 head to 20, he said, because of water problems.
“I’m not a water guy, or well guy, or a scientist,” said Fletcher, a lawyer, “but after a certain height, I think we no longer have a water table. The aquifer has to be lowering.”
Fletcher suggested that residential development downstream — above and beyond any climate-related shortages — was causing the water table to slowly move down — a signficant problem, he said, here in the higher headwater elevations.
He opposed the scenic river designation primarily because of its ban on dams or other structures. “I think it would be imprudent of this board to give those rights away,” he said.
“Maybe it’s nature, and if it is nature, then nothing’s to be done about it,” Fletcher said. “But if it isn’t nature, and it’s the building that’s going on below us, then if you don’t do something fairly quickly, this county’s going to change, and change drastically.”
Fletcher’s argument reminded some of cattle farmer and lifelong Rappahannock resident Mike Massie’s suggestion last year, as published on this newspaper’s op-ed page, that upstream farmers were being unfairly punished (by state and federal stream-protection measures) for massive development downstream — from here to the Chesapeake, as he said.
The Piedmont Environmental Council’s (PEC) Rappahannock representative, Don Loock, pointed out that the objections to loss of rights to build a dam were not entirely logical — since, he said, the state already requires its involvement and approval of any dam or natural-flow-impeding structure (though not at the General Assembly level). “You don’t have that right now,” he said, “so to say you’d be giving it up because of Scenic designation is not really accurate.”
In the end, Welch summed up by saying: “The state doesn’t need our recommendation [to vote the Hazel a Scenic River]. They would like to have it — but they don’t need it. They can do what they will, whether we make this recommendation or not.”
Early in the day, the supervisors heard Rappahannock Cooperative Extension agent Kenner Love’s estimates of crop damage due to the current “moderate” drought. The estimates, prepared for a resolution to be passed on to the governor for his consideration in declaring a disaster, put the loss of 11,800 acres of cattle or hay products at 60 percent, based on informal surveying among the county’s more than 400 farms. Damage to corn, soy, apple and peach crops was estimated to be between 34 and 50 percent, Love told the board.
Though supervisors in 14 other drought-affected Virginia counties have already passed resolutions asking Gov. Bob McDonnell’s office to issue a declaration for their jurisdictions, the board opted to wait another month.
Meanwhile, County Administrator John W. McCarthy received the board’s consent to pursue several alternative-farming initiatives, as recommended by the Economic Revitalization Advisory Committee (ERAC), including programs that advocated such alternatives to standard land-use designation — the farmer’s fundamental tax-based incentive in Virginia — as warm-season grasses, in McCarthy’s example.
“Typically land-use requires farmers to plant, grow and sell a crop. Warm-season grasses are interesting,” he said, “since their purpose is to attract quail — so the product becomes wildlife habitat, which can be argued is an incentive for hunters and tourists.”
McCarthy was authorized to create a team to look into grants in alternative-farming programs, as well as programs to increase tourism — agriculture and tourism being the ERAC’s top recommendations for the county’s attention in future years.