Officials try to keep reservoir project afloat
NEWPORT NEWS, Va. - City officials will once again seek intervention from Virginia's governor to revive plans for a 1,500-acre reservoir adjacent to Pocahontas' homeland that got flooded when a necessary permit was denied.
Newport News wants Gov. Mark Warner's help now that the Virginia Marine Resources Commission, in a 6-2 vote at a May 14 hearing, denied a permit for an intake pipe that would have been placed in the heart of shad spawning beds in the Mattaponi River. It is here on the river in King William County, Va., where Pocahontas' descendants live and fish for shad and have for centuries.
"They have made an official request, and we will take up that request with the governor when he returns from the trade mission," said Ellen Qualls, spokesperson for the Governor's office. "The governor's approach to the reservoir, so far, has been to allow the scientists and regulatory professionals to weigh in on the reservoir as it's going through the process, rather than to make it a political decision."
The city's lobbyist, speaking on behalf of Newport News Mayor Joe Frank, visited the governor's office recently and met with Chief of Staff, Bill Leighty, to request a meeting with Warner.
Warner left for Europe May 18 and is expected to return to his office May 27. Some time in the following days, he'll make a decision on whether to meet with the city on the issue, Qualls said.
This isn't the first time Newport News has sought political help in keeping the reservoir project afloat. In 1999, the city asked then-Virginia Gov. James Gilmore to intervene when the Norfolk District Office of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers said it would recommend denial of the project.
With Gilmore's objection to the Army Corps' recommendation, the project had to be transferred to the Army Corps' North Atlantic Division Office in New York. In October, the New York office reversed the Norfolk decision, giving the city a second chance for the reservoir construction. The final requirements included the VMRC permit, a wetlands plan and a historic preservation plan. The city also was required to compensate the Mattaponi, Upper Mattaponi and Pamunkey Indian tribes, which stood to lose cultural and religious sites, gathering grounds along with a potential loss to their shad fisheries.
Now, without the VMRC permit, the Army Corps can't act on the project.
Along with requesting a meeting with the governor, Frank said the city would consult with the Raw Water Study Group, which is comprised of municipalities interested in the additional water the reservoir would provide.
"First of all, the decision has been made," Frank said. "We are evaluating the options available to us. I was certainly shocked at their [VMRC] failure to do what we thought they should do."
But given the comments made by the VMRC staff at the first hearing held April 22, along with the questions the Commission asked of the city, Frank said he wasn't surprised by the commission's vote against granting the permit. During the April hearing, which lasted until midnight, the VMRC staff recommended denial of the permit, citing the destruction to shad spawning beds in the Mattaponi River as the primary reason.
"I was on pins and needles until that fifth vote came," said Carl Custalow, Mattaponi Indian Tribe assistant chief, of the VMRC's May 14 vote. "We had to have five votes. I know there was a lot of political pressure on the board. But the board asked a lot of questions from both sides."
If Newport News appeals the VMRC decision, the Mattaponi will have its attorneys intercept, Custalow said.
Opponents of the reservoir have, for years, argued that Newport News didn't need the additional water - something the Army Corps scientists in Norfolk also stated.
"We can't see them coming up here and destroying our river, so they can sell water," Custalow said. "We'll just have to sit tight and see what they plan to do."
Newport News sought to build a reservoir 16 years ago when the Virginia Department of Health told the city that it had reached its "point of use" of existing water supplies and to begin looking for other sources, Frank said.
Since 1987, Newport News has spent approximately $18 million on the reservoir project, Frank said. Despite opposition from environmentalists and Virginia's Indians, the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality approved one of the necessary permits for the project in 1997. This permit would allow for withdrawal of up to 75 million gallons of water a day from the Mattaponi River, city officials have said.
This action prompted the tribe to file a lawsuit against the State Water Control Board of Virginia for granting the permit. A 1677 treaty the tribe signed could help it protect the reservation from encroachment - movement on or near the Mattaponi's land.
Newport News can appeal the VMRC decision and has 30 days from May 14 to file the appeal, said Robert "Chip" Neikirk, VMRC acting deputy chief of habitat management.
"We haven't seen anything yet," Neikirk said.
The Mattaponi Indians fought against the construction of the reservoir and withdrawal of water from the River for years, stating that the actions would harm the tribe's shad fishery. Their two reasons, also found in the Norfolk Army Corps' published report in 2001, rested with the fact that the intake site in the river would be located in the heart of the shad spawning beds and because the withdrawal of water could increase the river's salinity.
Before the May 14 hearing, Custalow said that VMRC member, Russell Garrison, who made the motion to deny the permit, took his boat out on the Mattaponi River to the site where the intake pipe would be located.
"He measured the depth of the water and the width of the river at the proposed intake site," Custalow said. "I think he did so because he wanted to make sure he voted the right way, either for or against it."