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

The water levels of Neabsco Creek in the Woodbridge area of Northern Virginia are too low, a marine survey confirmed last week, supporting an earlier decision by the U.S. Coast Guard to warn away boaters with “danger” signs at the waterway’s entrance.

Neabsco Creek, a federal navigation channel, is authorized to a depth of five feet, but a survey by the Army Corps of Engineers two weeks ago showed depths ranging from 1.4 feet to 4.9 feet along the centerline in most of the waterway, said Sarah Gross, a spokeswoman for the Army Corps of Engineers.

“Anything below 5 feet is not to the depth authorized to ensure safe clearance for boaters” and any other users, Gross said.

That means, the Coast Guard can’t remove the “danger shoal” signs it installed in March, warning people about the shallow conditions. The signs have baffled business owners and workers who had argued the water level had not changed and who fear the signs will cripple their business, right at the start of boating season. Those familiar with the waters say they haven’t seen any dramatic changes in depth since last season.

The creek has not been dredged in two decades, and just like many other small water channels with a shoaling problem, it does not rank as a priority for federal dredging funds that generally go to larger channels such as the Baltimore Harbor.

Local, state and federal officials last week said they were seeking alternatives in order to restore the normal navigational aids on the creek, including finding money for dredging to guarantee the economic stability of the businesses, including three marinas, and the 50 workers who depend on the waterway.

Prince William has appropriated $750,000 for dredging, Supervisor Frank Principi (D-Woodbridge) said. State Sen. Scott Surovell (D-Fairfax) said he and other lawmakers are working to secure funding from the state budget and discussing the transfer of the channel markings with the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries. But he said, the federal government, which is responsible for dredging waterways, should come up with the money.

Principi, who has been advocating on behalf of the businesses, said the Corps of Engineers survey also showed up to 7 foot depths in parts of the channel. He said the community is already pursuing a procurement process to contract for the dredging. An early estimate provided to the county puts the cost for dredging the 4-mile channel at about $700,000.

“We understand the issues facing the local marina owners and recreational boaters, but the safety of mariners is our first priority,” Commander  Charles Bright, chief of prevention at Coast Guard Sector Maryland-National Capital Region said in a statement. “When we realized Neabsco Creek was no longer at the authorized depth, we had to act quickly to inform mariners to exercise caution when transiting in that area.”

When boats run aground, passengers can be left stranded until a tow company can assist or worse, officials said, in the case of a vessel traveling at a high speed, boaters can be ejected from the boat and suffer injuries or death.

Captain Terry Hill, left, owner of Hampton’s Landing Marina, chats with Meagan Landis, a constituent services manager with the Prince William Board of  County Supervisors on a recent Tuesday.  The community has been organizing to find funding for dredging of the creek and to get the U.S. Coast Guard to remove the “danger” signs installed in March. (Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post).

Business owners were hoping the survey results unveiled late last week would rule the water levels normal for the area.

Terry Hill, owner of Hampton’s Landing Marina, said many boaters are already staying away from the creek, and business is down at the marinas– which have a combined 600 boat slips and space to store another 400 on land.  Boaters from across the region travel to Neabsco Creek for maintenance and to use the Potomac’s only 24-hour fuel station. Now they hope for a solution before peak boating season.

The Army Corps of Engineers does not have federal funding for maintenance dredging of the area, or other waterways in the region that are also silting and where the U.S. Coast Guard has also installed danger signs.

“Federal funding is extremely competitive for maintenance dredging,” said Graham Mcallister, navigation section chief of Army Corps of Engineers Baltimore District. “Dredging funds are prioritized based on commercial traffic and economic impact of the activity. We will continue discussions with our state and local partners on options and other funding sources that may be available for dredging.”