Monday, January 1, 2007

FRANKLIN, Va. (AP) — The Blackwater River has been flooding more frequently in recent years, and some blame increased development and debris for causing the swampy and normally docile waters to repeatedly burst over its banks.

Six of the 10 worst floods on record for the river have occurred in the past eight years, according to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, flooding Franklin and other communities.

The flooding has washed out bridges and closed U.S. 460 for days. Two of the floods followed unusually strong hurricanes, but others came after heavy rainstorms.

“We never used to think about the river,” said Stanley Piersa, who has co-owned a gift shop in Franklin since the 1970s.

The store was engulfed by the river in 1999 and in October. “Now every time we hear a storm is coming, we keep a close eye on the river,” Mr. Piersa said.

U.S. Rep. J. Randy Forbes, Virginia Republican, has said he plans to introduce a bill to finance a Corps of Engineers study of Blackwater flooding.

The study also will examine two sister rivers in the Chowan Basin, the Nottoway and Meherrin, which have flooded less severely than the Blackwater.

The southeastern coast has entered what meteorologists call a cycle of more frequent hurricanes and other tropical storm systems.

But the Blackwater’s flooding seems to go beyond that, said Mark Mansfield, chief of policy and planning for the corps’ Norfolk district.

“I think something has changed in the river’s watershed,” he said.

The Blackwater winds for about 105 miles through the southern Virginia coastal plain, from Prince George County south through Surry, Sussex, Southampton and Isle of Wight counties.

It flows through forests of tupelo and bald cypress, whose tannic acid darkens the water and gave the river its name.

Jeff Turner of Southampton County, the Blackwater’s riverkeeper for the nonprofit Waterkeeper Alliance, said recently that a principal cause of the flooding is development — the spread of homes, shopping centers and parking lots across rural land that used to absorb rainfall.

Heavy timber harvests in recent years surely have played a part, said Southampton County Administrator Michael Johnson.

Much of the river’s watershed is timberland, he said, and mature trees drink great quantities of water.

Some residents and business owners along the Blackwater complain that Virginia Department of Transportation’s highway projects have disrupted drainage patterns.

Others note that the flooding began after the International Paper mill in Franklin quit operating barges on the river and thus quit dredging it below Franklin.

Mr. Mansfield said big storms such as Hurricane Floyd in 1999 likely have clogged remote parts of the river with fallen trees, silt and other debris, constricting the flow.

Clearing out such debris might go a long way toward stopping the floods, he said.

But several factors may be involved, Mr. Mansfield said.

He added that the logical first step would be to study all the possibilities and reach a diagnosis.

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