What is causing another civil war in Virginia - pitting the urban area of Newport News against the small rural communities in King William and King and Queen? Why are King and Queen supervisors fighting King William County?
What is united the Mattaponi Tribe, the Pamunkey Tribe and other minorities under the "Environmental Justice" banner? What has caused one state agency to turn on another, and one federal agency to recommend a denial of the other agency's pending permit? Will the EPA veto the whole idea?
And why are these crazy environmentalists out in the rain, saying "NO!" Canoeists, fishermen and land-owners on the Mattaponi River are in one chorus saying: Just say no to the King William Reservoir and dam on Cohoke Creek.
Here is the planned scheme, under a signed agreement between the King William County and the Newport News Waterworks. King William will acquire 5,000 to 6,000 acres of farms and forests. That land grab has already begun with a letter to 14 key landowners. They will lease that land as a reservoir site to Newport News, who will build the dam on the Cohoke Creek, flooding more than 1,500 acres - creating the second biggest lake in Virginia. It will fill the lake with water (up to 75 millions gallons a day) from the Matta-poni River, then pump it throughout the Peninsula to their customers. Money talks. Water users have already signed up from Williamsburg, James City County, York County, Newport News and the Hampton Roads areas.
But local King and Queen resident Tom Rubino points out that there is a growing need for freshwater worldwide, and nothing is in the Virginia water withdrawal permit to stop Newport News from selling this water anywhere it can. It can be shipped from Hampton's deep water port to any country that needs water and is willing to pay the price.
The Norfolk District of the Army Corps of Engineers required a 10-volume Environmental Impact Statement on the project. The Corps must grant a 404 permit to take more than 500 acres of wetlands, under the Clean Water Act.
The Corp's staff is reviewing the hundreds of comments they received on the reservoir's Final EIS. The EPA and several national environmental groups have asked for a Supplemental EIS.
Referring to this wetlands destruction, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation said, "Such destruction is unparalleled in the history of Virginia's implementation of the Clean Water Act and the State Water Control Law, and possibly in the Chesapeake Bay watershed." CBF's letter to the Corps notes that the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality has allowed the permittee to mitigate a loss of 437 acres of wetlands, with a plan required within two years of the permit issuance. The letter questions how they can grant a permit, when there is not even a reasonable or feasible plan for creating new wetlands? The CBF asks if the Cohoke Creek wetlands can be replicated given the technical constraints. If successfully replanted, such a forest could take 40 to 50 years to re-grow. The Sierra Club and the CBF were scheduled to meet with Democrat Sen. Chuck Robb to discuss the reservoir on Nov. 21.
The Sierra Club has looked at the two dozen letters of support for the project and hundreds of letters in opposition to the reservoir. Plus, hundreds of citizens from around the United States sent in opposition form letters, Internet messages and signatures on petitions against the project.
E-mail to the Corps came from all over the country and included messages from Native Amer-icans ranging from Massachusetts to Montana and California.
A significant letter was sent from the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, which after working for years with Newport News Waterworks on this project, still recommends denial of this reservoir based upon its negative environmental im-pacts. "The Service continues to have serious concerns over the integrity of the Mattaponi ecosystem following withdrawals for a King William Reser-voir. We do not want to see any project alter salinity gradients in the river or affect the Mattaponi's diverse tidal freshwater marshes.
"The Service reaffirms its position, as stated in our letter dated June 13, 1994, that the proposed King William reservoir, situated in a tributary of the Chesapeake Bay, will result in substantial and unacceptable impacts to aquatic resources of national importance."
Lawyers for the neighboring King and Queen County agree that the "project would result in new or an increasing loading of pollutants to high quality water (such as the increase of salinity to freshwater)," and find this water agreement to be against the water anti-degradation policy.
Regarding the salinity question, reviews of the salinity model developed by Virginia's Institute of Marine Sci-ence, found that salinity intrusion on the Mattaponi would increase upstream about five miles. That would be to the edge of the Native American's reservation, and also the spawning limit for the anadromous fishery. Many biologists complain the model used was too simple, and have suggested that a three-dimensional model be run to see what the true salinity levels would be. Salinity changes could affect spawning fish and a rare plant.
Another issue is the potential loss of species that are federally protected under the Endangered Species Act. The Mitigation Plan says they will just move the small whorled pagonia orchid. Rare plant experts point out though, that be-cause of its specific habitat requirements, this orchid has never been successfully transplanted. As for the sensitive joint vetch, the Nature Conservancy has found this stretch of the Mattaponi River to be the richest location for this plant. Nobody knows if the change in salinity will kill this species. The Native Plant Society said the "vetch colony seems to have little chance if the intake station is built," on the Mattaponi.
A major cultural problem is the potential effect of the project on two small Native American tribes, descendants of Chief Powhatan and Pocohon-tas. They will loose priceless artifacts, historical records of settlement in the region, plus burial grounds and ancient camp sites. The National Trust for Historic Preservation, in appraising the Cohoke Valley's archaeological significance, said, "The area is potentially significant as a traditional cultural property eligible for the National Register of Historic Places." Any flooding of this area would have an effect of "devastation of the tribe's fishing, hunting and other traditional activities."
The United Rappahannock Tribe pointed out a previous agreement with the Department of Historic Resources, "All efforts should be made to avoid disturbing Native American archaeological sites, including grave sites and associated artifacts." They feel this agreement supersedes the Newport News Agreement with King William County.
In a related environmental justice issue, the Mattaponi Tribe has traditional treaty rights for hunting and fishing on the river dating back 350 years. They are supposed to have been granted protection for a 3-mile zone around their reservation. The Commonwealth of Virginia has been accepting the traditional gifts from the Tribe every Thanksgiving. But when Gov.-elect Jim Gilmore was asked about those treaty rights during his term as attorney general, he said that they were not valid; modern times had made them obsolete. Thus, the history of the government invalidating treaties made with Native Americans repeats itself.
Not all the comments are from "special interest" groups dealing with the technical environmental and cultural issues of the law. Many were from concerned Virginians who love the Matta-poni River. These are the most passionate calls to stop the dam. A 10-year-old wrote: "Please don't let them build a reservoir to take water from our river ... Do you know what will happen [in the] long term if this reservoir is made? [I know] It's not going to be good!" She concluded, " There are going to be a lot of mad farmers and regular people out there."
An 87-year-old man from West Point wrote a letter to oppose the dam. Another resident of West Point said, "Newport News is a greedy monster!" A former commercial fisherman complained he lost his profession to water pollution because of a loss of wetlands. A doctor from Richmond said there has been no study of the shellfish, and the "system is too subtle, complex and fragile to risk permanent destruction." The 95 ladies of the Middlesex Women's Club sent in their opposition.
The economic interests who believe that growth is good for the region have pushed their campaign for a yes vote for the reservoir, sponsoring ads in the Tidewater area newspapers. They argue the region needs water to attract new industry. Those who favor the reservoir include: Mayor Joe Frank of Newport News, Hampton Roads Planning District Commission, builders associations, the Peninsula Association of Realtors, Hampton Roads Partnership, Canon Industries and the Chamber of Commerce. These groups represent the big money on the Peninsula.
Dr. William Dunson of Pennsylvania State University wrote: "This is an extremely partisan document (EIS) prepared by stakeholders whose only interest seems to be in facilitating further development ... and providing cheap water at great environmental cost."
The vast majority of the public and environmental groups opposed to the plan represent hundreds of thousands of concerned citizens. A poll taken Nov. 4 by the Sierra Club and the Alliance to Save the Mattaponi of the registered voters in King William County found 93 percent of them opposed to the reservoir. The hundreds of local residents who attended the public hearings are keeping up the pressure with candlelight vigils in King William County and Newport News. Canoe enthusiasts came from as far away as Culpeper and Port Royal to join in wet protests on the Mattaponi.
There are alternatives that remain unexplored. The Rocky Mountain Institute says reservoir proponents show an ignorance of future water conservation and plumbing programs which will save water. Dr. John Dawson, a retired medical professional, says they can safely recycle water as the utilities do in Northern Virginia. Two separate studies show the supply/demand numbers have been wrongly reported by Newport News, and there will not be a water deficit by the year 2040. There will actually be a surplus of water, if new plumbing required by law is installed and a planned desalinization plant is completed.
The Army Corps of Engineers is waiting for the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality. The DEQ is waiting for a vote from the State Water Control Board. Everybody seems to be waiting to see what Gov.-elect Gilmore will do.
Are we for conserving the last tidal freshwater rivers in Virginia? Or, are we in favor of a new, unlimited water supply which will spur the economic growth projected from Williamsburg, down the Interstate 64 corridor to Newport News. It is a fight to the end.
If Virginia Beach had to wait a dozen years for Lake Gaston's water, then it is clear this will be a repeat performance. Several litigation issues are waiting in the wings. It will be a long time before Newport News takes this clean river.
Opposition to the Reservior
- Alliance to Save the Mattaponi
- Archaeological Conservancy
- Chesapeake Bay Foundation
- Environmental Defense Club
- Float Fishermen of Virginia
- Garden Club of Virginia & garden clubs throughout the state
- Georgetown University Law Center/Institute for Public Representation
- Mattaponi and Pamunkey Rivers Association
- National Trust for Historic Preservation
- Native Plant Society
- Preservation Alliance
- Sierra Club
- Southern Environmental Law Center
- Virginia BASS Federation
- Virginia Council on Indians and numerous tribes from around the United State