Wedding Washout

June is a lovely month to get married. Really. And couples like my cousin and her fiancé who had their June 2020 wedding plans bumped to June 2021 (dang pandemic!) deserved every bit of that June loveliness. But between the forces of nature, and the frailties of local road construction, there were moments when it wasn’t clear whether any of the guests would actually be able to get to the wedding.

By mid-week before the wedding various family members had trickled down to the rural “Northern Neck” of Virginia where for decades my father’s extended family has gathered along the banks of a tidal tributary to the Potomac River. We were kept busy cleaning barns, mowing lawns, baking cakes, weeding gardens and other wedding what-not.

In the wee hours of Thursday morning before the wedding, the skies let loose with a torrential rain. As with many summer storms the precipitation was patchy but weather records indicate that we might have received as much as 3″ of rain overnight. But that was Thursday, two days before the wedding, and we still needed to get through Friday’s rehearsal and its accompanying dinner. It was also the day that the wedding party and most family members would be traveling in from across Virginia as well as distant parts of the country.

Friday started not too ominously, but by mid-afternoon it was a cats-and-dogs, all hands-on-deck situation. Fortunately the event tents were holding firm, but we started getting calls from family members who were encountering “road closed” signs. Apparently creeks were overtopping bridges, wrecking havoc for drivers. This included my son and nephew who, when they encountered their second closed road decided to plow past the barricade and through the high water. After all, they were bringing the beer and felt a responsibility to deliver! (Fortunately they made it through, but I hope they never make a choice like that again. It gives me the willies re-living that scenario and imagining how it could have turned out.)

Long story short, of the three ways to get to the wedding, two of them were washed out by the Friday storm that dropped what I later learned was nearly 8″ of rain in a very short time. The following week, after the guests had departed, I decided that I needed to see the aftermath for myself. After examining the closures, which traverse the same tributary in two different locations, I was able to piece together what had happened.

At the upstream location (the one my son blew through in his rental car) the road traversed a set of culverts that carried the relatively small stream under it. The watershed upstream of the road was well protected by riparian forest and seemed able to withstand even an 8″ rain. The problem, however was that the road itself, which came steeply down the hill from either direction and became a raceway for the downpour. With nowhere to go but the shoulders, the runoff built momentum, scouring out the unpaved area adjacent to the road, eventually eroding out the bed of the road itself. At the base of the hill the blacktop of the road was left hanging, unable to support even the guardrails.

Further downstream where the road crossed the dam and spillway of a once-functional mill pond, the damage was worse. In this location the entire road was was washed out. Hopefully no one tried to drive across this one!

The real kicker is that just two years earlier the same two roads were washed out in the exact same two locations. It took months to repair them, and just minutes to wash them out again. We can chuckle about delayed wedding guests, but it’s not so funny for people who depend on these routes to get to the grocery store, to school, to medical care, to get their farm products to market, and more. It’s also not too amusing to think of paying for these road repairs twice in two years.

I am hopeful that this time the county will take a new approach. For the upstream location, surely there are environmentally sensitive ways to route the stormwater from the road into well-constructed “green” stormwater structures without completely decimating the woodlands that are also a key component of the natural stormwater infrastructure. And by abandoning the downstream location (it’s a backroad alternative that serves very few of us), perhaps there will be more resources available to repair the upstream road crossing (which is a much more critical roadway) in a way that will last beyond the next 8″ rainstorm.

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