For the past decade or so, the Rappahannock River has been on a very positive track. The longest free-flowing river in the state of Virginia, it has seen migratory fish return to the further inland parts of the river, oyster populations reach approach the heights they once had, and multiplied eagle nest sites.
While this wasn’t a primary focus of the sources we were assigned to study, I found the geography of the river and physical trajectory each interesting to look into. Beginning at the Chester Gap in southwest Virginia, the Rappahannock River extends through King George County, Fredericksburg, around Culpeper, and right up to the base of the Blue Ridge Mountains. When compared to some other major rivers of the American east coast, this is no behemoth of a river, but it can act as a route all the way from the Chesapeake Bay, which we all know opens up to the Atlantic Ocean, to eastern America’s largest mountain range. To what degree and for what distance the Rappahannock River allows river travel is another matter I was wondering about. Right here in Fredericksburg, at a few different small islands, most notably Laucks Island, the river becomes much narrower, which surely wouldn’t be very friendly to larger river travel. There are a few points further inland from Fredericksburg as well, where the river narrows to some extent. The beginning of the Rapidan River, roughly 10 miles from Fredericksburg, is also extremely narrow, and definitely wouldn’t be optimal for any medium to large river travel. The same goes for the openings to most tributaries leading off of the Rappahannock River. The extent of the Rappahannock River means that, as mentioned in the first paragraph, migratory fish populations may travel as far inland as the Blue Ridge Mountains, largely thanks to the removal of the Embrey Dam, which sat by Fredericksburg, some decade and a half ago. The extent of the Rappahannock River does not mean, however, that major human sea travel is possible between the Chesapeake Bay and the Blue Ridge Mountains, as the Rappahannock River simply is not suitable to medium to large sea travel once far past Fredericksburg.
The improving health of the Rappahannock River is due to research and work done by our very own University of Mary Washington, clever planning done by regional planners, the fact that regional politicians somehow listened to these regional planners, as well as a whole array of community organization. One grand factor, or rather the lack thereof, that has led to the improving health of the Rappahannock River, is corporate interest. There simply doesn’t seem to be much corporate interest in projects that exploit the resources of the Rappahannock River and around it. Timbering and mining projects around the Rappahannock River had come to a halt long before the debate over whether or not to remove the Embrey Dam. The poor conditions of the Embrey Dam meant that restoration of the dam would have been not a lot smaller than the cost to remove it. The Embrey Dam had also been proven to act as a huge hinderance to the migration patterns of migratory fish for the entire near century it had been around. No businesses really profited from the existence of the dam, so no businesses used the superpower of lobbying against the prospect of the Embrey Dam being taken down. Through 2004 and 2005, the Embrey Dam was removed, allowing migratory fish populations to reach farther inland once again, as well as benefiting the surrounding environment in various more minor ways.