The Rappahannock

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A River at Risk


The Rappahannock River in eastern Virginia flows, uninterrupted, 184 miles from the Blue Ridge Mountains to the Chesapeake Bay. It is the longest free flowing river in the eastern United States and is considered one of the best-protected river corridors in the Chesapeake Bay watershed. The river and its tributaries support thriving agriculture, fishing, tourism, and recreation industries and is the drinking water source for three million residents in Virginia’s Coastal Plain and Tidewater regions. Approximately 250,000 residents live within the 2,715 square mile basin across 15 counties.

American Rivers identified the Rappahannock River as one of the most threatened rivers in the United States in its latest report on America’s Most Endangered Rivers. Oil and gas exploration and fracking activities and the potential threat to regional water quality and drinking water supply are identified as the primary reason for the endangerment findings. Public records indicate approximately 85,000 acres in five Virginia counties within the watershed are leased for oil and gas exploration. The report concludes King George, Westmoreland, Essex, Caroline, and King and Queen Counties lack appropriate local regulations to safeguard natural resources and local drinking water supplies.

Threat to Tourism, Recreation, and Natural Resources

The Rappahannock River is rich in natural resources providing multiple recreation opportunities and drawing thousands of tourists per year to hike, fish, and boat along the river and its tributaries. Nationally, the outdoor recreation economy generates $887 billion in consumer spending per year and employs 7.6 million. In Virginia (2012), outdoor recreation generated $13 billion and employed 140,000 residents. Clean water and healthy lands are critical to supporting this industry. Hydraulic fracturing adjacent to public lands and conservation easements in the watershed threaten to damage livelihoods dependent on the outdoor recreation economy and deprive residents the ability to enjoy the resources and recreation opportunities provided by the Rappahannock River. Approximately 7,314 acres of land under conservation easements are located within 1,000 feet of parcels with oil and gas leases within the five counties highlighted in this analysis. Some of these easements are held by the Virginia Outdoor Foundation. Nearly 1,400 acres of land permanently protected with conservation and open space easements are located within 1,000 feet of parcels with oil and gas leases including the Rappahannock River Valley National Wildlife Refuge. More than one million feet (215 miles) of streams and creeks flow within 1,000 feet of oil and gas leases, including sections of the Rappahannock River.

Threat to the Local Economy

A healthy Rappahannock River supports a thriving forestry and agricultural economy. According to a 2013 analysis by the Weldon Cooper Center at the University of Virginia, forestry and agriculture in Caroline, Essex, King and Queen, King George, and Westmoreland counties contributed $423 million to local and regional economies in 2011. Oil and gas activities risk contaminating highly productive soils which could permanently damage the agriculture industry and local and regional food systems.

Threat to Drinking Water

The Rappahannock River and its tributaries recharge groundwater aquifers which supply drinking water to more than three million residents in the coastal plain and tidewater regions of Virginia. In December, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released a new report on the impacts of fracking on water supplies and concluded hydraulic fracturing has led to contamination of drinking water supplies across the country. According to the findings in the report, drinking water can become contaminated during each stage of the hydraulic fracturing water cycle. Groundwater aquifers are complex systems, particularly across this region of Virginia where geologic conditions are more porous, thus increasing the risk of contamination by oil and gas activities. A spatial analysis of oil and gas leases identified over 215 miles of streams flowing within 1,000 feet of these properties placing local and downstream water supplies at extreme risk. A high groundwater table increases the risk to public and private drinking wells if a spill were to enter a nearby creek or stream.

The infrastructure required to transport, process, and deliver oil and gas products to market also introduce risk to drinking water supplies. No infrastructure and technology is foolproof as demonstrated time and again across the country. Pipelines spill, trains derail, and accidents happen with potentially devastating consequences to drinking water.

Local Solutions

Fortunately, there are solutions to protect the incredible resources of the Rappahannock River. Local watershed groups and other environmental organizations have identified local government land use regulations as the first line of defense against industrial gas development. King George County updated their zoning ordinance and Comprehensive Plan in 2016. County planners and residents engaged in a lengthy process to identify a 1,000 foot setback from public groundwater wells and a 750 foot setback from protected areas, sensitive habitat, and buildings. Combined, the revised setbacks restrict oil and gas exploration to less than 10 percent of land in the county.

There are no one-size-fits-all solutions to protecting communities from oil and gas activities and the first step should be to determine whether fracking is an appropriate land use and if it’s consistent with other community values. Comprehensive plans and zoning ordinances are powerful tools to protect communities from risks associated with oil and gas activities. Through community and stakeholder engagement, local planners and policymakers can ensure industrial development is located appropriately to minimize risk to natural resources and public health.

Source water protection plans, while not binding land use policies, can help residents and policymakers better understand the risks to local drinking water supplies. Through development of source water protection plans, communities can identify additional sensitive areas to restrict industrial gas activities. One example of a source water protection policy is to recommend additional restrictions adjacent to waterbodies directly upstream of drinking water intakes. This information can also be incorporated into the comprehensive planning process and zoning ordinance amendments.

Conservation easements are another tool for communities to ensure sensitive natural resources are protected from hydraulic fracturing. Spatial analytics can assist communities with prioritizing sensitive resources most at risk from fracking activities and direct financial resources and attention to acquire conservation easements using a more systematic, data-driven approach.

King George County has provided a pathway for Caroline, Essex, King and Queen, and Westmoreland Counties to restrict oil and gas exploration and fracking activities. Together these counties can protect the natural resources of the Rappahannock River, preserving their natural and cultural heritage and protecting critical drinking water supply for millions who depend on it.

Notes on Data

1. Oil and Gas Lease Data -- Data on oil and gas leases were digitized from a map produced by the Southern Environmental Law Center as part of their Fracking in the Southeast project. Geospatial Planning Advisors nor Chesapeake Commons has independently validated the data for use on this project. Oil and gas lease data, as presented, shall be used for informational purposes only. Please contact the appropriate county government for official oil and gas lease records.

2. Stream data -- Stream data is provided by the National Hydrography Dataset, a product of the United States Geological Survey.

3. Conservation easements -- Conservation easements were obtained from the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation’s Conservation Lands Database. The database is maintained and updated quarterly.

Project Partners

Spatial analysis and cartography was provided by our project partners at Geospatial Planning Advisors. Geospatial Planning Advisors (GPA) is an experienced environmental management and geospatial technologies firm working at the intersection of policy and technology to solve local environmental challenges.

Chesapeake Commons aided the project partners in geo-spatial analysis, design, and development of the site. The Commons partners with individuals and organizations to access, organize and share data to drive policy and inspire action that protects the environment.