The City of Lynchburg and the University of Lynchburg have established a unified vision for the future of College Lake. Since the rain event on August 2, 2018, which overtopped the College Lake Dam and resulted in the evacuation of homes downstream, the City and University leadership have worked to cooperatively develop a vision for the lake. The Executive Committee of the University’s Board of Trustees recently approved the initial concept.
According to the vision, the lake will not be refilled, and the dam eventually will be removed. The City and University will transition the lakebed into a wetlands ecosystem featuring an urban wetlands learning laboratory — a place where University students, as well as residents, tourists and students from other schools, can study urban wetland ecology and enjoy time in nature.
“For more than 80 years, College Lake represented a partnership between our University community and the City of Lynchburg,” said University of Lynchburg President Dr. Kenneth R. Garren. “Although none of us is happy to see the end of College Lake, we are excited about the opportunity to help establish a new ecosystem in a way that enhances the education of our students and others.”
“The decision to support the removal of the College Lake Dam was difficult, but considering that restoring the lake and the dam could cost more than $20 million, establishing wetlands emerged as the most viable option,” said Nat Marshall, chair of the University of Lynchburg’s Board of Trustees. “This will be the best use of our resources and will benefit our students, the general public, and the environment.”
“This project marks yet another way the City is proud to continue its long-standing partnership with the University of Lynchburg. Although we wish these plans were being made through better circumstances, moving forward with the restoration of Blackwater Creek and the establishment of wetlands at the former lake will allow us to be good stewards of both the environment and our community,” said Bonnie Svrcek, Lynchburg City Manager.
The project will be a model for best practices in the establishment of urban wetlands in order to provide downstream water quality benefits for Blackwater Creek. The watershed includes the upper reaches of Rock Castle, Dreaming, and Tomahawk creeks, as well as Blackwater Creek. These wetlands will act like sponges by soaking up and storing runoff to help reduce flooding through filtering excess nutrients and sediment out of Blackwater Creek.
Implementing the new vision has already begun. On Sunday, August 19, 2018, a wetlands seed mix was applied to the lakebed by helicopter. This seeding will allow appropriate plant life to begin growing and help to stabilize the sediment, reducing the amount of sediment eroding into Blackwater Creek, the James River and ultimately the Chesapeake Bay.
“Stabilizing the lakebed will help keep sediment from washing downstream and will allow for the newly forming stream channels to begin to stabilize as well,” said Erin Hawkins, Stormwater Program Manager for Lynchburg Water Resources. “We will closely monitor the lakebed and channels while we design the long-term removal of the dam and restoration of Blackwater Creek.”
The City is moving forward with completing emergency repairs to the dam and road in order to reopen Lakeside Drive to two-way traffic. This work is expected to be completed within two to three weeks.
The long-term plan will take time to finalize, but the City is working with the Army Corp of Engineers, the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality, and the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation on environmental permits that will allow for the ultimate removal of the College Lake Dam after the design and construction of a new bridge.
“I am extremely proud to be working with the University of Lynchburg on this important project,” said Timothy Mitchell, Director of Lynchburg Water Resources. “Not only will it eliminate a significant public safety risk by removing a high hazard dam, it will also result in a substantial environmental benefit for the entire community. There is no doubt that this will be a long and difficult process, but I am confident that by working collaboratively and cooperatively with University of Lynchburg we will realize the best possible outcome.”
Going forward, the City and the University will work together to develop options for the wetlands and stream restoration project and will also pursue grants and other funding opportunities. Environmental Studies professor Dr. Laura Henry Stone has been appointed to officially represent the University in developing the project with the City.
Originally formed in 1934, College Lake has been impacted by significant erosion in recent decades. “When I moved to Lynchburg in 2012, the narrative about College Lake was not a happy one,” Dr. Henry-Stone said. “It was a lake in decline that very few students had much connection to anymore. However, the wetlands growing up around its edges were thriving and attractive. I have tried to change the narrative by reconnecting students with the landscape around College Lake and helping them understand the relationship between humans and our environment.”
The process of establishing a new ecosystem will allow everyone in Lynchburg to learn firsthand about environmental stewardship. “As a society, we need to take bold steps to pursue ecological sustainability in the face of dramatic environmental change,” Dr. Henry-Stone said. “This is our chance to embrace change and be proactive about the future.”