The Final Draining of College Lake

College Lake after it was drained in Aug. of 2018. Photo retrieved from

Grace Cavanaugh ~ Editor in Chief

     Construction has begun on a bridge to replace the part of Lakeside Drive that runs over College Lake’s dam.

     In an announcement on the City of Lynchburg’s official website, it was stated: “The City of Lynchburg and the University of Lynchburg are pleased to announce that the first phase of the College Lake Dam Removal Project is underway. The purpose of the project is twofold: to remove the 85-year-old high-hazard dam and to restore the resulting lakebed to a thriving environment where Blackwater Creek can re-emerge after more than eight decades.”

      Dr. Laura Henry-Stone, Assistant Professor of Environmental Studies, said, “The city has two different departments who are working on this project. The Department of Public Works is overseeing the building of the new bridge. That is actually what is happening right now down there on Lakeside Drive and the lake where they have cleared a lot of the trees and there is construction going on. That is to prepare to build a new bridge. They will not remove the dam and drain the lake until that new bridge is finished. That is scheduled for December of 2022. […] So it’s a massive, multifaceted project.”

     She continued, “[The] city’s Department of Water Resources is overseeing that, the dam removal and lake bed restoration. I am working with the City Department of Water Resources as the liaison from the University to create those plans for removing the dam. And we have hired an engineering firm called AECOM that is doing the design of the dam removal and the preliminary engineering report.”

     An infographic released by the then Lynchburg College in 2014 stated, “In addition to flood control and aesthetics, any dam modification will need to address the impacts to wildlife, sedimentation, and water quality downstream. The conceptual plan alternatives will specifically address sedimentation coming from the watershed above College Lake.”

     Concerning the sediment problem that draining the lake will present, Dr. Thomas Shahady, Professor of Environmental Science, said, “The fish were killed during the first draining Aug of 2018. I estimated well over 10,000 fish were killed by the city. Concerning the surrounding ecosystem, they will flood the streams and James River with sediments when they remove the dam. It is inevitable.”  

     Dr. Henry-Stone shares the same sentiment, saying, “The challenge we are facing is that College Lake has been collecting sediment from the upper watershed for decades. There are places in the lake where […] that sediment is 20 feet deep. When the lake had to be drained in 2018 after the flood in August, it had to be done quickly because the city was concerned about the safety and integrity of the dam after the flood. A lot of the sediment washed downstream and there were no precautions taken for fish or any of the other wildlife. And it is unclear because nobody was really tracking how many fish might have actually made it downstream before the lake was totally empty. I believe that probably some of them made it downstream and did not necessarily die in the draining. Of course, we saw that there were a lot of fish killed from the dead fish in the lake bed afterwards and on the stream banks afterwards. But it is unclear really what the figure really was.”

     She continued, “There are a couple of different problems with the sediment that has built up in that washed downstream then and could get downstream again in the future. And one is that the sediment just suffocates aquatic organisms, especially what we call macro invertebrates that live on the rocky bottom of stream. That macro invertebrates form the foundation of a whole ecosystem, a whole aquatic ecosystem. Another one is that there is also a lot of fecal coliform and E. coli bacteria that has built up in that sediment in that lake from various sources in the watershed and the sediment probably has some of that bacteria embedded in it. So that could be a human health concern, of course, because E. coli and fecal coliform can make people sick.”

     On another note, the sediment could be good for some of the downstream environment. Dr. Henry-Stone said, “There has been some evidence that some of the downstream sections of Blackwater Creek have been what is called sediment starved, which means that they are not getting a recharge of sediment like there would be in a sort of naturally flowing creek ecosystem. And that recharge of sediment might provide nutrients to the ecosystem and habitats, especially along the stream banks to different kinds of organisms.”

     There are people in charge of making sure the sediment does not destroy the downstream ecosystem. “They called the stream restoration ecologist, [who] designs the stream restoration process. He is taking that kind of sediment balance into account,” said Dr. Henry-Stone. “What is the best sediment balance for a stream like Blackwater Creek? We want to let some of that go downstream. But the challenge, of course, is that there is so much of it built up in College Lake. We do not want all of that to go downstream and we want to capture as much as possible in that like that and in the wetlands. The main thing that AECOM and the city are planning to do is to drain the lake in stages. It will be a slower drawdown, which means it will allow some of those upper reaches of the lake bed to dry out before they draw the next stage down. By drying out, it will stabilize a bit and it will be less likely to all just run off in the next storm event, and also allow vegetation to get established to help hold that sediment in place as well, because that is the long term goal, to have vegetation throughout the whole lake bed to stabilize the sediment into what the native ecosystem would be in that in that area.”

      The current plan is to replace College Lake with a Wetlands Learning Laboratory. Prior to contrary belief, “[w]e mean what is it that we are going to learn from this ecosystem as it transitions from a lake to a creek and wetlands area,” said Dr. Henry-Stone.

      She continued, “This is basically a project, an ecological restoration. […] There is a lot of evidence that suggests that it’s better to let a river run free than to dam it up. […] We are going to be learning about how an ecosystem like this changes over time and how we can help facilitate restoration over time. This is a learning opportunity for the university and for the whole community that we can share with other communities that are also removing old dams. Certainly, pollution is going to be a part of that sort of learning process, so monitoring things like the sediment flow and nutrient run off, nitrogen and phosphorus runoff will be a part of that. In fact, […] agencies like the Army Corps of Engineers, they will require the city to be monitoring some of those parameters, like water quality. Those are not fully articulated yet. The Army Corps has not decided what all of the parameters are that they are going to be monitoring. But that is one of the things that AECOM is writing up in their report and working with those agencies to clarify.”

     To answer the question about who is running the program, Dr. Henry-Stone said, “The city is not controlling the project. I am at the table with them as a partner representing the university’s interests. I was on the interview committee, we wrote […] the call to get proposals from engineering firms to do this work for us. I helped write that proposal. I helped review the six different applications that came in from six different agencies. And then I helped interview the four different agencies or firms that we narrowed it down to. The consensus decided on the firm that we chose. I share that story to represent the fact that while, yes, the city is the entity that AECOM is working for. It has been a collaborative process in identifying what we want the organization to do for us.”

     Finances also play a role. According to Dr. Henry-Stone, “Yes, the financial aspect is a part of it, because the city has already allocated quite a bit of funding from their own resources, as well as secured funding from the state of Virginia, for this project. Yes, that has been awarded to the city and it is part of the city’s financial management plan. But again, we are working collaboratively on identifying additional funding sources that the university might also be able to pursue and contribute to this project through especially research funding grants and research education. We are less likely as a university to be able to solicit construction grants. The city will have more opportunities for pursuing additional funding if we need it for more construction.”

     In an article published by Virginia Places about the dam removal, it was stated, “The bridge was expected to cost $28.5 million, and lakebed restoration would cost an additional $20 million. In the 2019 session of the General Assembly, Lynchburg’s representatives succeeded in getting a $5 million state matching grant included in the budget.”

     When asked about what she was most excited for, Dr. Henry-Stone answered, “You know, we cause problems in the ecosystem when we dam something up like that. So I am excited about seeing that long term change because I am probably in this for the long haul. My collaborator of the city is a woman named Erin Hawkins, who is the director of the Department of Water Resources. She and I really see this as a real opportunity to contribute to our community and to the long term knowledge about dam removals and aging infrastructure, urban environments during this time of climate change, when we are going to have more extreme weather events and more significant stormwater management issues. I am excited about the opportunity to see how to how this ecosystem is going to change and how we can facilitate this restoration process to the best of our ability.”

     The final draining of College Lake will not be the end, though. According to Dr. Henry-Stone, “I have done a lot of a lot of work on understanding the cultural history of College Lake as well. Four or five years ago, I taught a capstone course in environmental studies in which the students interviewed folks and collected some oral histories about their memories of College Lake. The goal was to understand that while College Lake very well might not always be there, it does not it has to go away in our in our collective memory. It has been a really important cultural asset for our community for a long time. And I think it is important to honor that place and that lake in our in our collective history.”

     She continued, “The same with Dr. Shahady’s contributions. He has made important contributions to our community in the work that he has done around college, and it is important to honor those contributions while also looking ahead to the future about what is best for the future of this watershed’s community. That is what I want, a little bit of that historical perspective, too. And the city has been, I have found, really fantastic to work with and that they are actually putting together a story map, a website with [an] embedded map that has links with pictures and information about the project and about College Lake. That is going to be a really cool resource as well when that goes live, having that story mapped for the community to learn more about the project. That is a great example of what the city is doing for us, too, you know, for the university to create a resource like this for our faculty and our students.”

     There is also the issue of naming the wetlands College Lake will leave behind. Dr. Henry-Stone said, “We are thinking about what to call this space in the future when it is no longer going to be College Lake. I keep talking about it is like the Old Lake, that and the College Lake Dam. What I have been calling it sort of tentatively is the Blackwater Wetlands. In the future, we will have Blackwater Creek with the Blackwater Wetlands, so students in the future will be able to have a different experience instead of a lake and that will be Blackwater Wetlands.”

     Future opportunities for questions are coming. “The city is planning on having some sort of virtual public meeting process in November to share with the public what the engineering firm has designed for this restoration project,” said Dr. Henry-Stone.

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