The Bulletin

Water authority abandons plans to site pump station at Rassawek

By: - March 16, 2022 6:00 pm

Point of Fork, at the confluence of the James and Rivanna rivers, where the historic Monacan Indian Nation capital of Rassawek was located. (Cultural Heritage Partners)

A water intake and pump station will no longer be built at the site of the former Monacan Indian Nation capital known as Rassawek after a unanimous vote by the James River Water Authority Tuesday to begin seeking permits and approvals for an alternative location.

The decision brings to an end a multiyear-long dispute between local government authorities from Louisa and Fluvanna counties and the Monacan, a tribal nation recognized by the federal government in 2018. 

“The fight to save Rassawek is one of the first instances in which a Virginia tribe has drawn a hard line in the sand and leveraged its new federal recognition status,” said Greg Werkheiser, an attorney with Cultural Heritage Partners representing the Monacan nation. “It will not be the last time a tribe draws a line in the sand.” 

Monacan Chief Kenneth Branham said it was a “historic day” for the tribe and pledged to work with the water authority “in good faith” to support the project at its alternative site. 

“This has been a long road, from a place of pain, distrust and disagreement,” he said. 

The James River Water Authority, a joint venture between Fluvanna and Louisa counties, in 2015 obtained a permit from the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality to withdraw water from the James at a site known as Point of Fork. There, officials planned to build a pump station and a pipeline to branch off from it as part of new infrastructure to supply water to the growing Zion Crossroads community. 

The location drew a backlash from the Monacan nation, which had identified it as Rassawek, the tribal capital and an important burial site recorded by Captain John Smith in 1612. A state agency later determined that one of the archaeologists working on the project for the water authority was unqualified.

The Monacan nation’s position strengthened after Congress granted it federal recognition in 2018, a designation that came along with the right to consult on federal policies and projects that could impact them. 

On Rassawek, however, “many non-Monacans saw the fight for Monacan history as their fight,” said Branham. Ultimately more than 12,000 objections to the site selection from people and groups nationwide were lodged with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers as it reviewed project impacts. 

In August 2020, the James River Water Authority asked the corps to halt the project and later began assessing alternative sites. This Tuesday, it voted to support a shift to the alternative known as the Forsyth site, two miles upriver of Rassawek.

Justin Curtis, an attorney with Aqualaw representing JRWA, said the Monacan nation has expressed interest in acquiring the land at Point of Fork and that the authority “expects to explore options for the parcel in forthcoming discussions with the Monacans.”  

“There is an urgent need to complete this long-delayed public project to meet the public need for a new source of drinking water in rapidly growing areas of Fluvanna and Louisa Counties,” he said. “JRWA is working diligently to complete the project as quickly and efficiently as possible. JRWA appreciates the support of the Monacan Indian Nation and other stakeholders in that effort.”

Elizabeth Kostelny, CEO of nonprofit Preservation Virginia, said that the Rassawek dispute highlights “the fundamental need for tribal input at the very beginning” of project development. 

House Republicans torpedo bills giving Virginia tribes state consultation rights

In November, former Gov. Ralph Northam issued an executive order requiring state agencies to consult with tribes on certain state permits and projects. Despite unanimous Senate support, House Republicans rejected proposals during the most recent General Assembly session to codify that requirement in state law.

The executive order remains in force, and Werkheiser said there has been no indication that current Gov. Glenn Youngkin intends to withdraw it. 

“Things change slowly,” he said, “and they change especially slowly sometimes in our beloved commonwealth.” 

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Sarah Vogelsong
Sarah Vogelsong

Sarah is Editor-in-Chief of the Mercury and previously its environment and energy reporter. She has worked for multiple Virginia and regional publications, including Chesapeake Bay Journal, The Progress-Index and The Caroline Progress. Her reporting has won awards from groups such as the Society of Environmental Journalists and Virginia Press Association, and she is an alumna of the Columbia Energy Journalism Initiative and Metcalf Institute Science Immersion Workshop for Journalists.