June 25, 2008

Project Would Cut Off Lake From Back Bay System


By Scott Harper

The Virginian-Pilot

virginia beach

Once upon a time, Lake Tecumseh and Back Bay were separate bodies of water in southern Virginia Beach, with thick, woody swamps between the two.

Then, Ash ville Bridge Creek was created as a drainage ditch and navigational channel. And then, decades later, a small offshoot canal was dug - officials are not sure by whom or when - that today connects Lake Tecumseh with the sprawling Back Bay system.

While boating and kayaking opportunities flourished with the manmade connections, the lake and Back Bay have suffered ecologically, experts say. Lake levels are shallow and unpredictable, and Back Bay often is flushed with lake sediments and nutrients, which are hampering restoration efforts.

Now comes a proposal from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to turn the clock back and return the two systems to their separate, natural selves.

The federal service, which also oversees the Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge, wants to spend about $200,000 to construct two weirs or low dams and establish a grassy berm that would restrict water flows between the lake and the bay.

Technically speaking, the Army Corps of Engineers describes the proposed work as "restoring hydrology to Lake Tecumseh and adjacent wetlands."

The corps office in Norfolk is seeking public comment on the project, the details of which were released this week, before deciding whether to issue a permit so construction can begin.

Federal wildlife officials have been attempting to piece together the project for nearly eight years. They have run into money problems and some local opposition from neighboring residents, who fear that the weirs would bottle up the lake and worsen flooding in an area that already floods easily.

Residents and outdoor enthusiasts also worry about losing boating access, said Will Smith, a biologist with the Fish and Wildlife Service overseeing the project.

Smith said two separate studies indicate there would be no increased flooding risks. Kayaks and canoes, he added, c ould still go back and forth but might have to be lifted and carried across the berm.

Boating between the lake and Ash ville Bridge Creek might still be possible at high tide, Smith said, but likely would be restricted.

Lake Tecumseh once was known as Brinson's Inlet, and was open to the Atlantic Ocean. Storms and shifting sands eventually closed the inlet, which today is self-contained on the grounds of Dam Neck Naval Air Station Annex.

However, it is the property of the Hampton Roads Sanitation District, which bought the lake in 2007 for just more than $200,000 from a private owner. HRSD purchased the lake to serve as a buffer between development and its Atlantic Treatment Plant, which handles millions of gallons of sewage generated in the area, said Norm LeBlanc, water quality manager for HRSD.

The regional sewage agency supports the lake berm project, as do the city of Virginia Beach and the Navy, officials said.

"It's basically restoring a historic separation out there," said Clay Bernick, city director of environmental services. "It should be good for Lake Tecumseh's environment, and good for Back Bay."

With less sediments and nutrients washing into Back Bay, experts say, water quality should get better and could help aquatic grasses grow. Such grasses breathe oxygen into the water, provide habitat for fish and crabs, and are fodder for the thousands of waterfowl that seek shelter there.

Scott Harper, (757) 446- 2340, [email protected]

Originally published by BY SCOTT HARPER.

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