James River

The James and Rivanna rivers meet at Point of Fork.

Negotiations over a permit to allow water from the James River to feed Louisa County’s growth have stalled, and a federal panel has intervened to try to break the logjam.

The Advisory Council on Historic Preservation’s entry into the talks between the James River Water Authority and the Monacan Nation shows “this is an issue of high public interest and tribal rights are significantly affected,” according to Marion Werkheiser, an attorney who represents the Monacans. 

The authority is anxious to obtain the last permit it needs to pull up to eight million gallons of water per day from the river. The water is needed to meet growing demand at Zion Crossroads, support the planned Shannon Hill Regional Business Park and make development possible in other growth areas.

The Monacans want the water project relocated to protect what historians say was the site of their former capital, Rassawek, prior to white settlement in the 17th century. Werkheiser warned that if the project proceeds on the current site, the authority can expect a legal challenge.

The Rassawek site is located near Point of Fork where the James and Rivanna rivers meet in Fluvanna County. The authority proposes to build an intake in the river and a pump station on shore to send the water northward to the treatment plant at Ferncliff. The pump station would be located in an area where the authority’s recent archaeological investigation yielded numerous Native American artifacts, some of them thousands of years old.

The Monacans began talks with the authority over how to mitigate the water project’s impact in 2017. Initially, the Monacans focused on the need for compensation for anticipated damage to the site, including a request in September 2018 for $650,000. A portion of the money would go to the tribe’s museum in Amherst County to curate artifacts found at Rassawek.

But in November, the tribe changed its position, requesting that the pump station be located elsewhere. Werkheiser said authority members told her and tribal leaders in an Oct. 31 meeting that there were viable alternatives to locating at the current site. The authority’s consultant, Timmons Group, cited a possible alternative site 2.2 miles upstream in a December 2015 memo. The company advised against this scenario because of likely additional costs and delays.

“Once it was made clear that the project could meet its goals without impacting Rassawek, the Monacans decided to halt discussion of mitigation and instead demanded the project be moved,” Werkheiser said. 

In a January letter to the United States Army Corps of Engineers, the agency responsible for issuing the permit, then-Fluvanna County administrator and authority member Steven Nichols decried the Monacans’ shift.

“It is unfortunate that the Monacans would dramatically reverse their stated position on the project at this late hour after a history of constructive discussions,” he wrote.

Nichols offered $125,000 to support the Monacan museum and to pay curation fees to deliver artifacts recovered at the Rassawek site to the tribe.

“While this is a significant financial burden for our small rural utility and ratepayers, we are proud to be able to make this substantial commitment to historic preservation,” Nichols wrote.

When Louisa and Fluvanna counties first moved to withdraw water from the James River in 2010, the intended project site was at Bremo Bluff, adjacent to the Dominion Energy power plant and several miles upstream from Point of Fork. The pipeline would have run along James Madison Highway (Rt. 15) through Palmyra.

Fluvanna officials ended consideration of that site, citing the cost. The new site at Point of Fork was chosen in part because the water pipeline could be placed parallel to an existing gas line easement on Fluvanna’s eastern edge, and the distance to reach Louisa is less. 

There was little public discussion about the potential impact to Rassawek when Louisa County officials moved forward with the James River project in 2016. The authority moved the project site a short distance in early 2016, not to avoid the Native American site but to address the concerns of an adjoining landowner.

“We think of [Rassawek] as a point on a map. For the Monacans it’s more like an area,” Shaun Kenney, a former Fluvanna County supervisor, said recently. “Nobody really knows the precise location.”  

Jeffrey Hantman, a University of Virginia anthropologist, has been involved with archaeological digs at other Monacan sites in the region, including on the James River in Nelson County. He said historical documentation about the Monacans is limited, because there was little contact between white settlers and the tribe before the Indians retreated westward in the mid-17th century. However, he said the explorer and colonist John Smith cited Rassawek as one of the tribe’s five towns and located it on a map near the confluence of the James and Rivanna rivers.

“Everything we know about [the Monacans] is second-hand,” Hantman said during a talk in Charlottesville on May 24. “That’s why the archaeology and oral history of the Monacans plays a big role in answering the question of who they were.”

“In my opinion, this area comprises one of the most important archaeological districts in the Commonwealth for potential contributions to knowledge of the indigenous peoples of the Piedmont James River drainage,” Dan Mouer, a former Virginia Commonwealth University professor who conducted archaeological research near Point of Fork in the 1980s, wrote on his Facebook page. 

Mouer’s research coincided with construction of the gas pipeline through the area. At the time, some human remains were unearthed and relocated, Werkheiser said. No human remains have been found during recent site testing, but the authority has applied for a burial permit in case any are discovered.

Werkheiser said she expects the United States Army Corps of Engineers, which must issue the permit for work to proceed, to schedule a meeting with the affected parties in late July.