Reservoir would negatively affect the Mattaponi and Pamunkey

Bobbie Whitehead
4/29/03

NEWPORT NEWS, Va. - Virginia Marine Resources Commission officials recommended April 22 denial of a permit to the city of Newport News for its proposed 1,500-acre reservoir that would impact the adjacent Mattaponi Indian Reservation.

A major reason for the commission staff's recommendation rested with the destruction of shad spawning beds in the Mattaponi River where the city would withdraw up to 75 million gallons of water a day. Also, the river runs adjacent to the Mattaponi Indian Reservation and is the site of the tribe's shad fishery. Losses to tribe's culture, shad fisheries of the Mattaponi and Pamunkey tribes, wetlands and potential destruction to the river as well as lack of need for the additional water were also among the reasons opponents to the reservoir gave the commission's board.

"The commission staff cannot support the permit," said Tony Watkinson, VMRC habitat management division acting chief, during the first segment of a hearing that began at 2 p.m. and lasted until midnight.

The VMRC board will reopen the hearing May 14 at the commission headquarters in Newport News because the hearing hadn't concluded by midnight. The board may make a decision on the permit at that time.

In his presentation, Watkinson told the board that he had received 491 letters, 2,100 e-mails and 317 postcards from individuals and organizations opposed to the reservoir project. In support of the project, he said the commission had received only 95 letters and 47 e-mails.

Even though Newport News officials submitted a mitigation plan a week ago that proposed a ban on water withdrawal from the Mattaponi River from March to May during the shad spawning season, Watkinson said that the ban wouldn't change the impact to the river and spawning.

The Virginia Institute for Marine Science, although not a permit granting agency on the project, announced its opposition to the reservoir project several weeks ago. At the hearing, Dr. Roger L. Mann, acting director for research and advisory services with the Institute, told the commission that the loss of shad, whether large or small, "is unacceptable."

"We do not support this," Mann said.

The Mattaponi Indian Tribe, represented by assistant chief Carl Custalow and Todd Custalow, told the commission that the tribe's way of life, religious practices and culture would be destroyed if the reservoir is constructed and water is withdrawn from the Mattaponi River.

Because the Mattaponi River is tidal, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in the Norfolk, Va., district office, explained in detail in its 2001 report how the salinity of the river could potentially increase and harm the fish. Also, the tribe has argued that a 1677 treaty provided them freedom from movement on or near their reservation, which has shrunk from thousands of acres to about 150 acres during the past 400 years.

"We certainly were in agreement with the recommendation of the staff to deny the permit," said Michael Beach, staff attorney for the Institute for Public Representation at Georgetown University law center and attorney for the Mattaponi. "The city's 11th hour compromise, which really isn't a compromise at all, really won't do anything to mitigate the significant harm that this project will cause as several people testified at the hearing. If anyone is to blame, it's Newport News for insisting on continuing with this project despite years of significant problems with the project's feasibility on several levels."

In support of Newport News' plan, Maj. Gen. Robert T. Dail of the U.S. Army Transportation Center and Fort Eustis told the board that the army post, representing 12,000 to 13,000 soldiers and civilians, relied on water from Newport News and would benefit from the proposed reservoir's construction.

Newport News officials have argued that the Eastern Virginia area could suffer a lack of water in the future if the reservoir isn't constructed.

Newport News Assistant City Manager Randy W. Hildebrandt, told the board that despite the claims, withdrawal of water from the Mattaponi River would cause little or no salinity change as well as little or no water quality impact. This information, he said, on the water quality came from the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality, which issued one of the required permits for the reservoir in the 1990s.

Because the VMRC raised questions about the intake site of the reservoir being located in the middle of the Mattaponi River's shad spawning area, Hildebrandt also suggested delaying the placement of the intake until another study can be conducted.

"The public benefits to this project clearly outweigh [the impacts to the area]," Hildebrandt said.

A permit approval from the VMRC is among one of several final approvals the city of Newport News must receive before the Army Corps of Engineers can approve the project.

The project had been recommended for denial by the Army Corps' Norfolk office in 2001. The decision for its final approval now rests with the Army Corps' North Atlantic Division in New York. The New York office took over the project after Virginia's former governor, James Gilmore, disagreed with the Norfolk office's opinion. Once the New York office received the project, it reversed the Norfolk decision in October 2002, giving the city one more chance to get approval of the reservoir.

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