A pair of osprey share a nest on a sign marked “danger” as a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers boat passes in the Occoquan Bay just outside Neabsco Creek on Tuesday in Woodbridge, Va. (Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post)

Dredging in Prince William County’s Neabsco Creek hasn’t happened in two decades, but after an uproar over channel markers being removed and replaced with signs warning people away — right at the kickoff of boating season — officials are weighing options for securing funding to dredge the area and save the waterway access.

The U.S. Coast Guard installed the new “danger” signs last month, without advance notice, stumping the dozen small businesses, including three marinas, and dozens of workers who make a living from recreational boating along the Potomac.

The new navigational signs, some fear, could cripple business in this Woodbridge community 20 miles south of the nation’s capital — or worse, be the beginning of the end for a community with a deep boating tradition.

Neabsco Creek is not unusual; shoaling is a growing problem in waterways around the Washington region and elsewhere, federal and local officials say. But funding to dredge the sediment that causes the problem is scarce, they say, and generally used for major channels that will provide the most financial return.

Shoaling is the buildup of sand or sediment at the bottom of a body of water, creating hazards for boats to navigate. Its causes are natural and man-made. Years of neglect, erosion caused by storms, runoff, poor storm water systems and massive development all contribute.

The problem is so acute that it is affecting commercial and recreational activity from Ocean City to Virginia Beach.

Captain Terry Hill, owner of Hampton's Landing Marina, prepares his tow boat for a tour of Neabsco Creek and the adjacent part of Occoquan Bay on Tuesday in Woodbridge, Va. (Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post)

This year alone the U.S. Coast Guard has installed “danger shoal” signs in several waterways along the Chesapeake Bay and the Potomac River, including on the Honga River and Tar Bay on Maryland’s Eastern Shore.

“If we can’t determine with reasonable confidence that there is a safe and viable channel for boats to be able to use, then we have to put those signs up to warn mariners that they need to exercise caution going in and out of the channel because of the shoaling,” U.S. Coast Guard Chief Warrant Officer Christopher Runt said.

“It is not the Coast Guard’s intention to do anything to harm their business,” Runt said. “Our priority has to be with ensuring the safety of the waterway users and boaters.”

In the Woodbridge area, the Coast Guard found Neabsco Creek too shallow to erect the red and green navigational aids that are installed each spring, Runt said. The water levels were under four feet in some areas, he said, below the six feet required to install the smallest buoy — a floating navigational mark — in the Coast Guard’s inventory. The Army Corps of Engineers said the channel’s authorized depth is five feet.

But marina owners contend the water’s depth hasn’t changed significantly in over a decade and question the timing of the Coast Guard’s measurements — a few days after a major wind storm hit the region, displacing water. The Coast Guard said its crew arrived a week after the March 2 storm, when normal water levels were expected.

The water depths on Neabsco Creek have varied for years from four to five feet along the channel, users say, enough to allow boaters to safely take their vessels in and out.

They hope a marine survey conducted by the Corps of Engineers last week will prove them right and lead the Coast Guard to take down the danger signs they say are already deterring visitors.

“We have customers that are saying the channel is closed and they want to move their boats,” said Terry Hill, owner of Hampton’s Landing Marina and a lifelong resident of Neabsco Road. “They are coming in to get work done, they see those signs, and they call and say, ‘I can’t come in there.’ ”

'This is our livelihood'

Boating is important to the economy in Woodbridge, which has access to the Occoquan and Potomac rivers in the eastern part of Prince William. The three marinas on Neabsco Creek have a combined 600 boat slips and space to store another 400 on land.

They generate $5 million in revenue annually and contribute nearly $100,000 in property taxes, according to the county.

Carlos Rodas works on a 34-foot boat April 13 at a lot off Neabsco Creek in Woodbridge, Va. (Luz Lazo/The Washington Post)

On a typical weekend during the season, the marinas are busy with boaters coming in and out of the creek, which has also a boat brokerage, a full-service repair shop and the Potomac’s only 24-hour fuel station.

In addition to the 50 workers directly hired by the local businesses, another 100 or so are said to benefit from them. They include subcontractors like Carlos Rodas, who gets most of his business waxing, painting and polishing boats at Neabsco Creek.

Rodas said customers who come for service at the start of the season are less inclined to do so because they don’t know what to make of the ‘danger’ signs.

At stake is his small business, the source of income to support his family and for his three employees and their families.

“This feeds my children. It pays the rent, the insurance and taxes,” Rodas said on a recent morning as he worked on a 34-foot Sea Ray Sundancer. “This is our livelihood. I beg them to please reopen the channel.”

The Coast Guard changes could also affect response times to emergencies on the Potomac; the Prince William Fire Department vessel is parked on site and eventually may be moved from the Potomac to a marina on the Occoquan River, county officials said.

“If it says danger, you stay away,” said Jerry Sandors, a Springfield resident who has kept his boat on the creek for 12 years. He said he hasn’t seen water levels change in the last year and thinks “the Coast Guard happened to show up on a bad day.”

But he fears greater consequences if silting continues. The accumulation is partly blamed on storm-water systems generating sediment and causing channels to fill.

“If nothing is done, eventually we are going to lose the creek and the marina, and once that happens it will be disastrous around here,” he said.

'A statewide problem'

Prince William Supervisor Frank Principi (D-Woodbridge) and state Sen. Scott Surovell (D-Fairfax) have been advocating on behalf of the businesses.

“This is also a statewide problem all over the tidal Chesapeake Bay watershed,” Surovell said.

In a March 28 letter to Gov. Ralph Northam (D), Surovell and Del. Jennifer D. Carroll Foy (D-Prince William) asked the state for money to help cover dredging costs. Businesses plan to dredge around their marinas, and the county is considering matching the costs they pay. However, they don’t have enough money to dredge the entire four-mile length of the channel, the letter said.

Captain Terry Hill, owner of Hampton's Landing Marina, says of his customers: “They are coming in to get work done, they see those signs, and they call and say, ‘I can’t come in there.’ ” (Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post)

Neabsco Creek was last dredged in 1998. An estimate provided to the county puts the cost at about $700,000. County and state officials say they want to work with the Corps of Engineers, which is responsible for maintaining federal waterways, to come up with a plan that may include a public-private partnership funding structure.

The Corps of Engineers surveyed the creek last week, assessing the depths and widths of the channel, and the results expected this week could be used to make the case for funding. The Coast Guard said if the survey finds water depths at five feet and enough width for boaters to safely get in and out, it will remove the danger markers.

“If it doesn’t show that, then the area needs to be dredged,” Runt said.

The Corps of Engineers allocates dredging dollars to major harbors, leaving the shallow draft projects in small recreational harbors to compete for what’s left. The Baltimore division’s budget for fiscal 2019 calls for $29.6 million for the district’s navigation program, most of it — $23.6 million — for dredging associated with the Baltimore Harbor.

“Unfortunately, for channels like Neabsco Creek, it is very competitive to get dredging funding,” said Chris Gardner, a spokesman with the Corps’ Baltimore division. Projects are prioritized based on their economic impact and public safety, meaning those with the most commercial tonnage, fishing and transportation uses or those used as harbor of refuge are most likely to be dredged. The primary use of Neabsco Creek is recreational.

But industry leaders said finding the resources to save small businesses in areas such as Woodbridge and maintain access to the waterways is crucial.

“Recreational boating is a significant economic contributor to the country, and it is particularly important in small waterfront communities like those being affected by this situation,” said Thom Dammrich, president of the National Marine Manufacturers Association, which is lobbying Congress to include funding for dredging in small harbors.

As the weather gets warmer and boating season is underway, the first priority for Neabsco Creek is to get the danger signs down, officials say.

And time may be running out. A pair of ospreys, which migrate to the area each spring, is already building a nest on one of the danger signs. If they lay eggs there, the sign can’t be touched for months. Ospreys are protected under federal law, and removing an active nest would require a permit.

“I am not exactly sure what we are going to do if the Coast Guard decides to keep the signs up,” Principi said.

Hill, the marina owner, said the more time passes, the harder it will be for the businesses still recovering from an industry slump from a decade ago, when boating production was down 80 percent and people were reluctant to sink money into a boat in an unstable economy.

“I just survived a storm, and this hits me with another one,” Hill said.