It’s not too late to interject a dose of plain talk, common sense and perhaps, even a notion of equity into the rancorous debate surrounding Newport News Waterworks’ quest for Mattaponi River water for a proposed reservoir in the Cohoke Valley of King William County, VA.

Newport News is desperately scrambling to put a positive “spin” on a highly critical, 1998 U.S. Army Corps of Engineers-ordered needs-assessment study for the region. The just-released, — third — independent-needs study has come back sharply critical of both the applicant’s hyper-inflated future regional growth estimates and sub-par water conservation potential estimates, clearly questioning the absolute need for the project. Even with this potentially “fatal flaw” rearing its ugly head, the bigger story here is that it speaks to a set of more regional issues and questions.

The fundamental underlying problem with Newport News’ water withdrawal and transfer scheme is its abject failure to even remotely factor in any level of consultation with upstream governments, leaving no provision for regional equity in the long-term use of the waters of the Mattaponi River. Regional equity can only be achieved through consensus and reason, rare commodities in the current debate.

And, this isn’t just a southeastern Virginia situation. As the Bay watershed’s population grows, disputes over water — who gains, who loses — will grow, too. Just look at the ongoing dispute between the city of Baltimore and the Susquehanna River Basin Commission. It’s time to start doing things right.

Here is a set of guidelines and principles, that while escaping the federal and state permitting process, do bear witness to much of what seems to be lacking in the current King William reservoir application before the Corps’ Norfolk District Office in anticipation of a pending Decision of Record by the District Engineer.

Think of this as a “Cohoke Manifesto” for Newport News Waterworks:

1. Newport News must consult directly and immediately with ALL York River basin jurisdictions and water demand centers to confirm alleged or presumed 50-year projected consumptive water use estimates that are based on an outdated 1988 data set provided by the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality.

Long-term regional equity in the supply of raw water must be clearly provided for across the entire York River basin for this or any project to succeed. A commitment to immediately pursue the essential, albeit protracted, consensus-building effort required here will go a long way toward establishing adjustments to unreliable and untenable 10-year-old DEQ upstream consumptive use estimates.

2. Waterworks must clearly abandon its long-term potential to pump Pamunkey River water to augment Mattaponi withdrawals, the sole subject of its current permit request.

Newport News’ original Corps permit application describes how a Pamunkey River withdrawal was never considered as a viable supply option because of the specific objection of host King William County. However, subsequent amendments to the original binding contract agreement between Newport News and King William County appear to leave the door open for a future Pamunkey River pump station. This apparent conflict in intent should be clarified and reconciled immediately.

3. It’s time for Waterworks officials to develop an Exceptional Mitigation Plan for all affected resources.

Let’s quit monkeying around the issue here; reservoirs generate significant long-term direct and indirect impacts.

In the case of the Cohoke, the costs will include the single greatest loss of exemplary wetland resources in Virginia, and Gov. Jim Gilmore’s stated commitment to “no net loss” notwithstanding, potentially the largest loss within the next 10 years on the East Coast of the United States.

In addition, irreplaceable and unique Native American cultural artifacts will be lost unless aggressively and meticulously recovered in an effort to preserve the historic record of the local resident native Pamunkey and Mattaponi tribes. Meeting only the nominal federal and state requirements is a brutal and callous insult to local Native Americans, and risks losing the recovery of an indigenous people’s legacy.

Far too many questions remain unanswered about impacts from potential salinity change to be swept aside, and the presence of rare and endangered species of plants and special biotic communities is hardly a trivial matter to overlook.

Newport News would be well-served by getting out in front here. Denial of the absolute value of these treasures exposes Waterworks as the project applicant to ridicule, disfavor and ultimately, resentment and rejection.

4. Newport News must establish, describe and fund a comprehensive multivariable monitoring plan that envisions and delineates specific remedial actions in the event that what is alleged by the applicant to not ever happen, DOES happen.

Monitoring plans, however sophisticated, mean little or nothing if you do not commit to taking swift and remedial action in the event that you discover as a result of the monitoring that things are going awry. Just promising to keep an eye out doesn’t cut the mustard. Any monitoring plan that fails to meet this test will be challenged and scuttled.

5. Waterworks should immediately raise the costs of providing finished and delivered water across-the-board to all clients and customers in the Newport News Waterworks service area, other than the poor, needy or indigent.

It’s time Newport News charged a real-world price for its product; a price that more accurately reflects its true cost to all of us, and in so doing, serve to effectively stimulate legitimate and meaningful long-term conservation on the part of its customers. The old song of high water prices inhibiting economic development and prosperity doesn’t play anymore. Acknowledge that “pay to play” is a real-world truth that we ALL must face, and the sooner the better.

6. The City of Newport News should craft local enabling legislation and commitments to directly fund and develop an aggressive coastal desalination program using proceeds from dedicated Mattaponi water sales within the 50-year build-out period, and bring it on-line as early as possible.

Face the music; the future water supply solution lies in the Chesapeake Bay and the Atlantic Ocean for Virginia’s thirsty and growing coastal municipalities. Should this reservoir ever come to be built, then make this freshwater impoundment the final chapter in a long history of cheating Newport News’ customers and the region’s future generations out of a rational long-term solution that lies directly at their doorstep.

7. A blundering and bumbling record to date notwithstanding, Newport News must not fail to effectively engage local residents in the region of the two rivers, and specifically Mattaponi River landowners, in all aspects of project management if permitted.

Local residents know the Mattaponi River and they’ve seen repeated low flows during the droughts that prevented them from irrigating the crops they depend on for their livelihood. In the event that a reservoir does come to be permitted here, failure to consult with them in the matter of low-flow pumping could have dire consequences in the community in terms of trust, social well-being and overall comfort levels. Locally elected officials from the Three Rivers Soil and Water Conservation District and their professional local, state and federal staff should be tapped to establish an independent oversight effort, again, enabled, funded and welcomed by Newport News.

8. Newport News must acknowledge that the current “business as usual” approach to this project, too often cited by Waterworks officials as consuming some 10 years and $10 million, is both inappropriate and insufficient, and simply will not succeed. Not on the Mattaponi, and not on the Pamunkey. Not ever.

It’s a brave new world of environmental protection and concern in Virginia.

Waterworks officials should carefully listen to and learn from the results of the landmark 1995 and 1997 voter polls commissioned by the Virginia Environmental Endowment: “The overwhelming majority [87 percent] of Virginia voters believe that it is possible to protect the environment and to have economic growth. In instances where economic growth may conflict with environmental protection, more Virginians feel strongly that it is important to protect the environment.” [VEE Annual Report 1997]