Cobbs Creek Reservoir Water Quality Questioned

Published 3:52 pm Tuesday, June 11, 2013

CUMBERLAND – Years have been devoted to studying the projected impact of Cobbs Creek Reservoir on the flow of the James River. For the reservoir, which was planned partially in response to a need for increased water supply for Henrico County, issues of quantity have been key.

But, have issues of quality been studied?

“No, there has not been a study on water quality, it's all been flow related,” says Paul Peterson, engineering team project manager for the reservoir.

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Scott Kudlas, director of water supply for the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ), confirmed that.

Because the reservoir is taking water that was already in the river and putting it back in the same river, the DEQ does not consider the reservoir to be a point source, says Kudlas, so the project hasn't received the same type of water quality evaluation that a pollutant discharge would receive.

But, during the Buffer Management Meeting held last month at the Cartersville Volunteer Rescue Squad building, Dr. Bill H. Kornegay wasn't willing to ignore the question of water quality. Dr. Kornegay introduced himself as an environmental engineer of fifty years who had worked in academia, the industry and as a consultant.

The length of half a football field, the buffer is meant to allow current vegetation surrounding the reservoir to act as a kind of filtration system, reducing the amount of pollution and shoreline erosion that could corrupt the reservoir's water quality.

A plan which, Dr. Kornegay says, may backfire.

“Remember,” he told Henrico and DEQ officials who were present, “you cannot destroy nor generate elements.”

His concerns revolve around what will happen to the vegetation in the buffer once it dies and decays. It will then release excess carbon and nitrogen into the water being held in the reservoir, he says, water that will eventually be released back into the river to be used by those downstream.

The augmentation reservoir will be located in northern Cumberland County and is designed to release water into the James to augment river flow during the dry summer months and periods of drought. During times of sufficient river flow, such as the spring, the reservoir supply will be replenished from the James River.

The project is being built by Henrico County, which owns an intake down river and will be able to increase the amount of water it withdraws from the James River because of the reservoir's augmentation capabilities.

Both those who choose to retain property around the edge of the reservoir and Henrico County will have to adhere to the Buffer Management Plan, which is currently being reviewed by the DEQ for approval. The meeting, allowing for public input, was one step in that process. (See May 1 edition of The Herald for more details on the proposed management plan.)

Dr. Kornegay's Report

After Henrico reviewed the restrictions and had a short discussion of specific concerns by land owners regarding preexisting barns, pasture areas and driveways, Dr. Kornegay gave a presentation of data regarding the effect of the buffer on water quality in the reservoir.

He was introduced by Edmund “Pete” Burruss, who owns 20 of the parcels that Henrico plans to purchase or acquire easements on for the reservoir project.

In his introduction, Burruss stated that while he is okay with most of the current guidelines on the buffer, he felt some parts were “overkill.”

“Keeping the buffer clear for view, clearing trees, cutting grass, reasonable uses with motor vehicles, mowing, bush hogging, those kinds of things. To me, it's just totally ridiculous to not allow that,” said Burruss.

“I have been in the business for 50 years and I am very concerned about the environment. And, of all of your criteria for the buffer area, this is the only one I would recommend you change,” Dr. Kornegay told those gathered that night, reiterating Burruss' concerns.

He argued that vegetative growth in the buffer area, such as grass and trees, will eventually die and decay and, if not removed, will ultimately negatively effect the water quality in the reservoir.

He told of several water quality issues with major projects throughout the United States, which occurred when decay of vegetation was not taken into consideration when the projects were designed.

He argued that carbon and nitrogen levels in the reservoir would be higher if the most of the vegetation was allowed to stay in the buffer, where it would eventually die and decay and affect water quality.

He continued that these higher levels of carbon and nitrogen would have to be treated by Henrico at their intake down river, at potentially great cost.

He conceded that it is hard to estimate how much the nitrogen and carbon levels would affect water downstream, since there are other variables that are unknown.

“So, your best chance to preserve water quality is to harvest and remove any bio-growth on the system,” he concluded.

Water Quality

Studying the impact of water quality down river, “is an extremely complex analysis,” Peterson pointed out, when contacted by The Herald following the meeting. “That would require a lot of work to really thoroughly look at it, I believe,” he concluded.

He said that although Henrico has carefully looked at Dr. Kornegay's data, “What I did not hear in the comment, there are a number of special conditions that are already included…that have to do with types of harvesting of vegetation and burning of vegetation that is already allowed under a number of different situations.”

Henrico had a hard time concluding what changes should be made to the exceptions that are already allowed, Peterson concluded.

Ultimately, though, Peterson pointed out that any changes would have to come through the DEQ.

Kudlas, who was present at the meeting, confirmed that it would be up to the DEQ to make any specific changes to the Buffer Management Plan.

Henrico has submitted the plan, a summary of input from the meeting and a digital version of Kornegay's presentation, says Kudlas, “so, we are reviewing that now. Once we review it, we'll get back with the County on what changes, if any, need to be made to the plan.”

At this point, a study of the effects of the impact of the water from the reservoir at Henrico's water intake 45 miles down stream has not been completed.

However, Kudlas says, “water quality buffers have been used for some time for source water protection and they have been used effectively for many, many years.”

He continued that while Dr. Kornegay's report was interesting and the DEQ will look at it carefully, “we have not ever been made aware of the types of problems occurring with water quality that Dr. Kornegay suggested.”

“We have existing reservoirs on the James River that discharge after the water is sitting around for significant periods of time in storage and there are not problems with those facilities in terms of their water quality,” he points out.

Lake Moomaw, at the headwaters of the James River, is an example, Kudlas says, “during significant low flows, the discharge from that dam make up as much as 40 percent of the flow of the James, so if that water quality was an issue, we'd really see it.”

Since the meeting, Burruss has also submitted a letter to the DEQ, wherein he concludes that Dr. Kornegay's data “clearly proves that with respect to the proposed buffer condition that prohibits cutting and removing vegetation is indeed overreaching and constitutes unnecessary and, in my view, unlawful taking of property.”

In response to his letter, Burruss informed The Herald that he has a meeting with the DEQ next week.

The final compensation plan for the reservoir project is coming before the State Water Control Board Monday, June 17. (See article in the May 14 edition of The Herald.)

After that element of the project is completed, Kudlas told The Herald the DEQ would be moving forward with the buffer management plan.