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Trouble in River City

Budget Cuts Reduce Public Presence at Riverbend Park

Alarmed that there is no public presence at Riverbend Park on four days of the week, the managers of Great Falls National Park just downstream say they will ask the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors “to consider having someone there” when access to the boat launch is open, said Walter McDowney, manager of Great Falls National Park.

Audrey Calhoun, superintendent of the George Washington Memorial Parkway at Turkey Run and supervisor of Great Falls National Park, is on vacation for two weeks, but a draft of her letter to the supervisors awaits her return in August, McDowney confirmed Tuesday.

Boaters have long been able to access a boat launch on the Potomac River through Riverbend Park without encountering park employees. A flyer is posted near the launch ramp to warn them about river currents.

But people who “put in” upstream at Algonkian Park sometimes leave the river at Riverbend, say park supporters. And Riverbend staff sound a warning if they see someone in danger.

“If something goes wrong, they give us a call, McDowney said. “Just last week, we had a jet skier. He zipped past so fast, that was all they could do.”

But effective on July 1, the first day of fiscal year 2004, Fairfax County reduced staffing at 409- acre Riverbend Park to three full-time “merit” employees and one seasonal employee who is there for six months. They are responsible for the 409-acre park. They are also responsible for 340 acres at Scotts Run Nature Preserve, which also lost a seasonal employee during the budget cuts.

The Riverbend Visitor Center is now open Friday, Saturday and Sunday only.

The gate is unlocked every day at 7 a.m. and locked again at 8:30 p.m. But people who know the park also enter it on foot, on bicycles, on horseback, and by boat, say local residents.

The safety of kayakers, canoeists, and fishermen is a concern, said McDowney.

“If a person was to put in at Riverbend, which is just upriver from Great Falls National Park, they are between us and the aqueduct dam. If they are not aware that the dam is there, and they don’t read the safety message at Riverbend, that is dangerous.

“Once they go over that dam, there is a good chance they are going to drown,” McDowney said.

“If they survive going over the dam, Great Falls would be next. Very few people have survived going over Great Falls,” he said. “It’s something I wouldn’t do. It is only for experienced kayakers.”

At Riverbend, the Potomac is deceptively placid, its surface calm and glassy in the early morning.

“It’s not as shallow as it looks,” said McDowney. “There’s a really strong current there.”

The river’s speed picks up below a shallow dam across the river downstream. And at Great Falls, where the river drops 76 feet in altitude in the Potomac Gorge, it becomes sinister, with a strong current roiling just beneath the surface.

Three times in recent days, warning buoys above the dam that are maintained by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers have washed away, said Jim Dewing, a Riverbend Park employee who warned two kayakers who were about to put into the river on Tuesday.

Marcel Van Vierseen of Herndon and Tom Donaldson of Great Falls planned to drop one of their cars at Riverbend, then drive to Algonkian Park in Loudoun County with their kayaks and ride the river downstream to Riverbend.

“We’ve been doing this ever since we were kids,” said Van Vierseen.

“We know the islands. We know how to get around.”

The three river parks are maintained by different authorities: Algonkian Park is a Northern Virginia Regional Park, Riverbend is a Fairfax County Park, and Great Falls is a national park.

Budget cuts in Fairfax County that took effect on July 1 have brought about a reduction in services at Riverbend.

But Riverbend “is not supposed to be ‘the primary caregiver’ as far as river safety,” said Kevin Fay, Dranesville District’s representative to the Fairfax County Park Authority.

“It is Maryland’s responsibility first. The boundary between Maryland and Virginia is the water’s edge,” Fay said.

“It is not necessarily true that someone will be in the building, and aware, in the event of that kind of emergency, Fay said, but “It is something we need to be concerned about as we look at the budget situation.”