Many of us in Virginia and across the Bay region, for whom protecting and restoring the Bay is paramount, were buoyed when Gov. Mark Warner, in his January 2002 inaugural address, committed his administration to meeting all of Virginia’s Chesapeake Bay commitments and identified the crafting of a comprehensive water policy for the commonwealth as an administrative priority.

Warner’s courageous selection of long-time Bay champion Tayloe Murphy as secretary of natural resources resonated with most Virginians, owing in no small part to Murphy’s exemplary legislative tenure and history of finding common ground in advancing controversial resource management programs such as those encompassed in Virginia’s Chesapeake Bay Act.

The Bay didn’t figure quite so prominently in the governor’s second State of the Commonwealth speech, to the mild consternation of some, given his recent appointment as chairman of the Chesapeake Bay Program’s Executive Committee.

Warner did address Virginia’s commitment to meet pressing schedules associated with cleanup plans for hundreds of impaired streams. But at the same time, the state’s new streamlined budget delivered unprecedented cuts to already strained resource agencies tasked with stewarding Virginia’s bountiful natural resources and meeting multiple Bay Program obligations and commitments.

Of continued concern to many are pending Virginia permit decisions regarding the proposed King William reservoir project. Not only are hundreds of acres of habitat-rich Cohoke Creek valley forested wetlands on the line, but also struggling anadromous fisheries, federally listed freshwater marsh communities, and rare historical and cultural resources of critical concern to resident Pamunkey, Mattaponi and Upper Mattaponi Native American tribes.

The project represents what would be the largest single permitted wetland loss since the enactment of the Clean Water Act. Indeed, it was this very preponderance of multiple resource losses and significant impacts that had been factored in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Norfolk District’s permit denial recommendation, which was carefully articulated and supported in a lengthy written decision.

Nonetheless, in October 2002, the Corps’ North Atlantic Division overturned the Norfolk District’s denial, and ordered that the permit process be revived, including instructions that an expedited schedule for specific permits and approvals from the Commonwealth of Virginia be initiated. These were to include revised wetlands mitigation plans, completed Section 106 historical and cultural resource mitigation negotiations, certification of the project as consistent with Virginia’s Coastal Zone Management Program, and any other necessary construction permits. Which brings us to today.

Among the remaining needed permits is one requested of the Virginia Marine Resources Commission for the intake structure in the Mattaponi River, through which a maximum of 75 million gallons per day of water would be pumped. The commission requested that the Virginia Institute of Marine Science study the issues attendant to the permit request and advise it in the matter.

In response, the institute’s director of research and advisory services, Dr. Roger Mann, assembled an extraordinary multidisciplinary team of resource experts to conduct the review and prepare a report for the VMRC. The study was completed and sent to the commission in March. The report is posted on the institute’s web site at www.vims.edu.

Comprehensive in its scope and depth of supporting data, and sweeping in its conclusions, VIMS’ 24-page report delivered a series of significant and specific recommendations to the commission in the matter of the intake structure permit sought by the City of Newport News Waterworks.

Among the most damaging to the applicant is the recommendation that the intake structure not be permitted on the Mattaponi River, given that river’s clearly documented contribution in net productivity toward the recovery of the anadromous shad fishery, a long-standing and recently reaffirmed Chesapeake Bay Agreement commitment. The report describes any action by the VMRC to grant the requested permit as running counter to standing Interstate Fisheries Management Plans describing current management strategies for anadromous fisheries developed by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission. These include recent key amendments that spell out more stringent controls for American shad in response to continuing declines.

Numerous Chesapeake Bay 2000 agreement commitments are cited in the report as well, specifically living resource commitments associated with anadromous fish—pointing to the considerable inconsistency with multiple commitments that such a permit issuance by the Virginia Marine Resources Commission would introduce.

Of particular interest is a report recommendation that, if possible, a decision on the requested permit be delayed until Virginia has developed a regional water allocation plan.

In the final analysis, this translates to a timely leadership opportunity for resource managers in Virginia and the Chesapeake Bay—without the spilling of additional red ink. For the VMRC, the report provides a clearly credible, scientific basis upon which to decide a difficult and controversial permit application in favor of a critical fishery now in recovery mode.

For Virginians, this represents an opportunity to meet multiple Bay agreement commitments. Importantly, it also avoids a failure to meet numerous other commitments that the proposed King William reservoir would put at risk, such as the loss of forested wetlands. VIMS’ report also clearly reaffirms Governor Warner’s conclusion that the time is long overdue for comprehensive and meaningful water resource planning in Virginia. Implicit to that conclusion is that it would be in Virginia’s best interests to act now rather than later.

The commission is soliciting and accepting comments on the permit application until its April 22 meeting and public hearing, at which time action on the permit request is anticipated.

Comments should be forwarded to: Tony Watkinson, Virginia Marine Resources Commission, Habitat Management Division, 2600 Washington Avenue, 3rd Floor, Newport News, Virginia 23607, or to twatkinson@vmrc.state.va.us