Monacans demand new water project site

Representatives of the Monacan Nation took their case against the James River Water Project directly to their opponents on Tuesday, demanding that the pipeline be moved from the former site of the tribe’s capital city.

The Monacans’ chief, Kenneth Branham, the tribe’s attorney and several supporters addressed the James River Water Authority during its regular meeting at Spring Creek subdivision in Zion Crossroads. 

Among the Monacans’ charges are that the water authority failed to consult the tribe before choosing the site for a pump station near the confluence of the Rivanna and James rivers in Fluvanna County. John Smith, the colonial explorer, wrote about Rassawek, the Monacans’ city, in the early 17th century and located it on a map, though the exact location is not certain.

The authority’s plan is to pump water from the James north to Ferncliff, where it will be treated and then used by customers in Zion Crossroads and other parts of Louisa County. The United States Army Corps of Engineers must issue a permit before construction can begin on the pump station.

“You did not begin meeting with the tribe until 2017, a year after you had purchased the land to build the pump station,” Marion Werkheiser, the Monacans’ attorney, said. “To pretend now you were surprised by their objection is disingenuous.”

Justin Curtis, an attorney for AquaLaw, a Richmond firm advising the James River Water Authority, said the tribe was initially contacted about a burial permit related to the water project in April 2016. The next contact was in the summer of 2017, when the Monacans accepted an invitation to be a consulting party.

The Monacans have said they decided in 2018 to seek a new location for the pump station after learning that the authority had considered alternative sites, but rejected them for financial reasons. The cost to build the pump station, deliver the water to Zion Crossroads and treat it is an estimated $50 million.

“We were told in 2016 it was a done deal. Then our lawyers told us there were other possible routes,” Kenneth Branham, the Monacans’ chief, said. “That put a bad taste in my mouth. When someone betrays you in that manner I don’t know if I can trust them or not.” 

The choice of where to locate the pump station and the water intake, which will be located in the actual river, was not based solely on where it would be most economical, Curtis said. The authority also has to ensure the intake is in deep enough water to keep it beneath the water surface at all times. Water quality at the point of intake is also a factor.

“There are always alternative routes, but the question is whether there are viable and practical ones,” he said.

The authority’s water withdrawal permit from the state Department of Environmental Quality, issued in late 2015, requires coordination with Cobbs Creek Reservoir in Cumberland County, which is allowed to release water into the river during extended periods with a lack of rain, Curtis said. The water from the reservoir would enter the river just upstream from the James River project intake.

There’s no guarantee that alternative sites upstream would have less historical significance, Curtis argued. If anything, those sites might be more likely to contain artifacts and even human remains, he said, because they are further out of the floodplain.

“I don’t think we’ve ever denied this area is historically sensitive,” he said. “We do know if we go upstream, we’re likely to hit other historical resources.”

Still, state officials cautioned the authority against locating the pump station at Rassawek. Julie Langan, the state Department of Historic Resources’ director, said recently she told the water authority’s consultants and Army Corps staff in February 2016 that the site was “ill-advised” because of its historical value.

Besides being the likely site of Rassawek, the confluence of the James and Rivanna rivers is also known by historians as Point of Fork. The plantation house and farm there are on the National Register of Historic Places.

The authority met in closed session after the public comment period to discuss a lawsuit the Monacans have threatened to file.