Any decision to allow a water intake permit in a critical shad spawning area of the Mattaponi River should be postponed for years until new studies can assess the project’s impact, according to the Virginia Institute of Marine Science.
VIMS said a recent proposal by Newport News to construct the intake but not pump water during the critical shad spawning period has “intuitive appeal” but questioned whether the city could meet its water needs if adequate pumping restrictions were imposed.
“In order to reduce the risk of undesirable impact to either the fish resources or the City’s safe water yield objective, we strongly recommend completion of a monitoring program prior to any final permit decision,” Roger Mann, VIMS director for research and advisory services, said in a June 25 letter to the Virginia Marine Resources Commission.
The commission has scheduled a hearing Aug. 11–12 to deal with the city’s request for a permit to build a water intake that could draw up to 75 million gallons a day from the Mattaponi to fill its proposed 1,500-acre reservoir on nearby Cohoke Creek in King William County.
The commission last year rejected 6–2 the city’s proposal after VIMS scientists warned that the intake was located in the most important spawning areas for shad—a species that has been the focus of major restoration efforts—in the entire state.
The city took the commission to court and, in a deal worked out by Attorney General Jerry Kilgore, the commission agreed to grant the city a new quasi-legal hearing in exchange for dropping the lawsuit.
Based on a study by a team of scientists, the city revised its permit request, offering to halt water pumping for 60 days during the spring spawning season to protect shad.
It further proposed funding an eight-year monitoring program to determine what water temperatures and other variables trigger shad spawning so the hiatus is best-timed each year to protect shad spawning.
The scientists hired by the city concluded that the studies they proposed would be able to answer key questions and allow the intake to be operated with minimal risk to shad based on similar work in the Hudson River.
But the VIMS scientists said the Hudson and Mattaponi were too dissimilar to make that assumption. As a result, they said, it was impossible to fully assess the risk of the pumping hiatus proposal until after adequate monitoring was completed—something that would take at least eight years in order to to gather data during different climatic conditions.
The VIMS scientists, who are charged with providing scientific input to the commission, also said the study proposed by the city should cover more early life stages of the shad and a longer time frame each spring.
They also repeated concerns voiced last year that early life stages of shad and other fish could still be affected as they are pushed back and forth along the intakes by the tides.
The city has long insisted that the reservoir, which will cost more than $150 million to build, is essential to provide water for the 600,000 residents it predicts will be in its service area by midcentury.
But the proposal is wildly unpopular in the rural area where the reservoir would be constructed. And environmentalists say the city’s mitigation plan would not fully compensate for the lost ecological functions of more than 400 acres of wetlands that would be flooded—which would be the largest permitted loss of wetlands in the mid-Atlantic region since the Clean Water Act was passed in 1972.