- Associated Press - Sunday, January 4, 2015

LYNCHBURG, Va. (AP) - When Laura Henry-Stone enters her kitchen and makes a morning beverage, College Lake graces her view when she looks out the window.

The Lynchburg College professor enjoys listening to geese flocking to the water during migration season and the sounds of the spring peepers, a perk of living next to the lake. A resident of Faculty Drive, a campus street off Lakeside Drive with a row of 15 houses - mostly college staff with property abutting the lake - she normally walks to work through trails passing the water while soaking in the scenic beauty.

“I don’t think there’s anywhere else in Lynchburg that I could actually live as happily as I live here,” said Henry-Stone, who teaches environmental studies and moved into her home in summer 2012. “Not just because of the lake, but the whole surrounding ecosystem. I feel like we have a really diverse, interesting nugget of urban ecology here . the silver lining is I have this amazing ecosystem that makes me feel like I’m in a thriving woodland rather than in a city.”

The lake’s presence in the Faculty Drive neighborhood and in the fabric of everyday campus life could potentially face drastic changes soon.

The dam forming the lake, which the city of Lynchburg owns, has a spillway not large enough to handle a major storm event and is deemed a hazard, according to state regulations. The city is considering two options: rehabilitating the dam to meet current rules, which includes armoring it and improving the existing bridge over Lakeside Drive, or removing the dam and building a new bridge, a measure that would lead to the demise of the lake.

No final decision has yet been determined; city staff is expected to bring forward a recommendation to City Council at some point next year, said Jim Talian, the city’s water quality manager. If the dam is removed, the city is mulling constructing wetlands in the existing lakebed.

The estimates for both routes are in the $8 million to $10 million range, city staff has said.

Henry-Stone said her concern is a lack of a funding mechanism and plan to make sure a wetlands area in the existing lakebed is done properly if the lake is no more. The area would revert back to Blackwater Creek through a gradual process if the dam is taken out, she said, but if not much is done to the lakebed then sediment currently deposited in the water would dry out and a forest eventually would grow.

“But what we would lose then, is this wetland habitat,” she said, adding she is passionate about it coming to fruition. “Personally and professionally, what’s best for ecology of this area is to maintain it as a wetland.”

The dam was constructed in 1934. The college owns the reservoir but the final decision on addressing the dam lies with the city.

Lynchburg College President Kenneth Garren, who also lives on Faculty Drive, said the lake strikes a chord in the campus community. Alumni have given him photographs of what the lake used to look like before it decreased in size in recent years from the buildup of sediment, he said.

Fishing, canoeing and ice-skating were popular activities in the past, he said.

“There’s a lot of history here; there’s a lot of memories,” Garren said. “Life changes, the world changes. At some point we were working very hard to get the lake cleaned out and got pretty close to getting (federal) government support. All that would have been in vain in the declaration the dam was unsafe.”

Many residents of Faculty Drive raised concerns and questions during a public informational meeting the city organized and held in November.

Garren said at this point, he personally is not sure what the best option is. No matter what option is taken, he said some sort of mechanism upstream to stem sediment and silt from draining into the James River would be necessary.

“Environmentally, that’s what needs to be done,” Garren said.

Garren noted the lake is private for college use only and is not public out of concern of a liability if someone were to get hurt. A fisherman may occasionally be spotted on the banks from pedestrians and motorists passing the lake on Lakeside, but he said it is off limits for public use.

“I’m not sure I would be eating any fish (caught in the lake),” he said in reference to the sometimes mucky water after rainfalls.

Because the sediment from the city’s runoff is trapped above the dam, the lake has dramatically reduced in size, city officials have said. The original surface of the lake was reported to be 44 acres; it has been reduced to 19 acres due to sedimentation, according to information the city presented at a public meeting last month.

The city and college has looked into dredging the lake, but costs were too expensive.

“Even if we dredge the lake, it’s always going to have problems,” Henry-Stone said.

The lake is unsafe to swim in, largely because of bacterial pollution, she said. She described the lake as an “outdoor lab” that the college has used for academic research purposes but believes a wetland habitat would bring similar learning opportunities.

The dam safety regulations in general have garnered criticism from some area residents, who feel they represent government overreach. Henry-Stone, however, said her reaction to the validity of the regulations may vary on a case-by-case basis, but generally she feels they are justified from an environmental perspective.

“More dramatic storms are becoming more common with climate change,” she said.

Other actions the city is mulling include reengineering wetlands to address water quality issues and building forebays to act as a buffer during flooding and reduce sediment.

Talian said the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation, which oversees dams, has recently given the city some leeway in a deadline to come up with a course of action. But a plan would need to be decided on, likely in early 2015, though the state has granted more breathing room, he said.

“We are definitely slowing down,” he said. “We are turning down the urgency a little bit.”

The wetlands issue is probably the biggest question in the entire process, he added. The dam removal or rehabilitation is driven by state law and mandates action, he said, but moving forward with wetlands is a discretionary venture that carries some uncertainty.

Todd Olsen, professor of health promotion at the college, lives on Faculty Drive and looks at the lake every day while running. He wishes there could be a way to slow the filling in of the lake from sediment and blames the city for not doing a better job in the past of controlling runoff.

“I still see it as a beautiful lake,” he said. “Certainly I worry about my view.”

Talian said a positive byproduct of the lake is keeping sediment from going into the James River. The city has investigated the issue and found in its stormwater management program buildup could be mitigated in other ways, he said.

“Obviously the sediment deposited there would no longer be deposited and we are exploring alternatives,” he said. “There are more cost efficient ways to do it other than keeping (the lake) for that reason.”

Recently, Lynchburg received $1.7 million from state grant funding to go towards the effort of reducing stormwater pollution into local streams. Gov. Terry McAuliffe announced more than $20 million in grants were awarded for the statewide initiative, with more allocations planned for next year.

Olsen said he has “extreme sentimental attachment” to College Lake and enjoys turtles and blue heron he regularly encounters. He is concerned what may happen to the wildlife habitat if the lake ceases to exist.

Intrigued with lake and its role on campus since he moved to the city 21 years ago, he feels it is an amenity worth saving.

“I see it as a major city asset,” Olsen said. “Once it’s gone, it’s gone forever.”


Information from: The News & Advance, https://www.newsadvance.com/

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