The Occoquan River will be getting a maritime makeover this fall for the first time in 42 years, a project that should make navigating the river smoother for commercial and recreational vessels.
Work is scheduled to begin Oct. 15 on dredging about a six-mile stretch of the river, from the Potomac River to the town of Occoquan.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers plans to increase the depth of the Occoquan River Federal Navigation Channel to nine feet, the first such dredging since 1962. The channel is now about six feet deep.
It will cost about $2.3 million to dredge the river, according to Abdul Lewally, project engineer for Fairfax County. Lewally said that the federal government will pay 90 percent of the cost and that Fairfax and Prince William counties will pay the rest.
Lewally said that river traffic is about equally divided between commercial and recreational users and that deepening is necessary because a number of both types of vessels have run aground. Many recreational boaters say their propellers are damaged in shallow areas.
The project will also include widening the channel. The plan calls for the channel to be 150 feet wide from the confluence of the Potomac to Taylor's Point and 100 feet wide from Taylor's Point to Occoquan. Currently, its width varies.
The Corps of Engineers estimates that about 31,198 cubic yards of material will be scooped from the river bottom and will end up in the Prince William County landfill.
Work is expected to be completed by Feb. 15, according to Steve Garbarino, project manager for the Corps of Engineers. The work has to be done during what Garbarino called a "dredging window." That window is determined by calculating the timing of the project based in part on the effect it will have on vegetation on the river bottom and on wildlife such as migratory fish.
"Folks have been dealing with the tides and the shallowness of the channel for a long time," Garbarino said, "and it got to the point where we had to do something about it, and that's what we are going to do."
He said that river channel depth was six feet when the last work was done 42 years ago. "What has happened is that the channel uses have changed over the years," Garbarino said. "The big change, as far as the channel goes, was additional commercial and recreational needs." He said that barges carrying commercial loads had to travel lighter than capacity to avoid groundings and that trips had to be scheduled according to tides.
Terry Verity is a service writer at Hoffmaster's Marina in Woodbridge, located on the river. When someone needs work done on a boat, they have to go through Verity to get it scheduled. He said recreational boaters are happy about the dredging project.
"It will obviously make the channel a lot easier to follow," Verity said. "You will have people doing a lot less damage to the underwater equipment on their boats." He said recreational boaters now have to know where all the shallow parts of the channel are to make a trip up or down the river. The dredging project will improve the quality of maritime life, he said.
"It's very important, being that you have a lot of new boaters out there," he said. "They've bought a new boat to have fun, and it is not a lot of fun if every time you go out, you have to get the prop changed. It's going to make the travel up and down the Occoquan a lot smoother."