Virginia's State Water Control Board approved a draft permit for a proposed King William County reservoir that has drawn protests from environmentalists and the Mattaponi Indian tribe, but they left the door open for further review in the future.
Proponents told the board at its Dec. 16 meeting that the $130 million, 1,500-acre reservoir is needed to meet the growing water needs of the Williamsburg-Newport News-Hampton area through the year 2040.
"We all recognize that the future economic viability and quality of life on the Peninsula depends on securing a reliable water supply for the long term," Newport News Mayor Joe Frank told the board. Opponents said the project would violate two 17th century treaties with the Mattaponi and ruin a pristine river that is home to a variety of plant and animal life, including several threatened species. Opponents are trying to raise national recognition of the issue.
Hunter Craig, the board chairman, said its decision had to be based on water quality alone - not development concerns, old treaties or other matters. The vote was 6-1.
"My heart and my stomach say we shouldn't vote for this," he said. "My head says ... frankly, the board doesn't have the authority to consider job development ... to consider moral issues." Nonetheless, some opponents were heartened by amendments to the permit made by the board. It ordered additional reviews as to whether construction of the reservoir would affect river salinity, whether the wetland mitigation plan is adequate and whether the environmental monitoring plan for the project is good enough. The board required an additional public hearing on each issue.
"Clearly, from our perspective, we're disappointed that the draft permit was granted," said Billy Mills, president of the Mattaponi-Pamunkey Rivers Association. "But we're encouraged by the amendments to the draft permit," which he said was an indication that the board "has some of the same reservations we do."
The board's action is only one step toward approval of the reservoir. The plan still requires a permit from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
Meanwhile, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service has recommended that the Corps deny the permit, citing environmental concerns, including the loss of hundreds of acres of wetlands. The EPA has also raised questions about the project.
There is no timetable for the Corps to make its decision. It is also analyzing whether a supplement needs to be made to the Environmental Impact Statement that was prepared for the project.
Meanwhile, local Native American tribes and environmental groups have moved ahead with their campaign to have the the Mattaponi named an "endangered" river by American Rivers, a national river conservation organization which each year names what it considers to be the 20 most threatened waterways in the country.
Such a designation has been endorsed by Pamunkey, Mattaponi, Upper Mattaponi, Eastern Chickahominy, Chickahominy, Monacan and Namsecond tribes, as well as the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, the Garden Club of Virginia, the Friends of the Rivers of Virginia, the Nature Conservancy's Virginia Chapter and others.
"It's clear that this reservoir scheme has raised far more serious questions than it has answered, and that staunch opposition to this project is growing and spreading across the Commonwealth," said Mills, who has lead the drive for the "endangered" listing. "The list of knowledgeable and informed organizations supporting this nomination effort reads like a 'Who's Who' of the state's premier conservation advocates and their respected leadership."
The reservoir plan calls for a 6-mile-long reservoir running diagonally across King William County, drawing up to 75 million gallons a day from Cahoke Creek, a tributary to the Mattaponi River, most of it going to Newport News 50 miles away. The reservoir would be completed in 2005.
Business and community leaders and scientists assured the board during the lengthy public comment period that the project was needed, that it was environmentally sensitive and a model of regional cooperation.
People who live along the river, environmentalists and Mattaponi tribe members said the project was ill-conceived, deprived their area of its water and was based on inaccurate projections of future needs. The board had delayed action on the permit several times, largely because of complaints from environmentalists and the Mattaponi.
"This project has been debated from every conceivable angle," said Del. Alan Diamonstein, D-Newport News. "It's clear that by approving this project, you will not degrade water quality."
The Mattaponi claim the project violates the treaties by encroaching on a 3-mile buffer zone around their 150-acre reservation on the river. The state attorney general's office dismissed that claim in an opinion issued in June.
The treaties give the tribe exclusive use of the land, and reserve the right for the tribe to hunt and fish on the river and maintain its traditional lifestyle. The tribe claims that drawing water from the river would hurt fishing, and the 62 people who live on the reservation depend on fishing for survival.
"It's a matter of keeping your word," said Ben Garrett, a trustee of the tribe.
James Couch, the only board member to vote against issuing the permit, said he felt Newport News failed to fully document the region's future need for the water.
"I felt without that documented need, the potential environmental issues were significant," he said.
Environmental groups have said the projected water demand for the region was overstated by about 20 million gallons a day.