Monacan site should be saved, but can it be?

{child_byline}The Daily Progress{/child_byline}

The James River Water Authority is under fire for choosing a historically significant Native American site — as its former capitol, the most significant to the Monacan nation — as the location for a new water pumping station.

The site is Rassawek to the Monacans and known as Point of Forks on modern maps. The site is important to the JRWA for probably the same reason it was important to the Monacans: It sits at a strategic location at the confluence of the James and Rivanna rivers.

The pumping project already has received two permits from state agencies and is awaiting two more permits from state and federal agencies.

But its obliteration of the remains of a major Monacan town and disturbance of gravesites is opposed by the tribe and some preservationists.

If it can be done, the site should be saved.

It likely was inhabited as far back as 5,000 years ago. When Capt. John Smith, arrived in Virginia, Rassawek was a fairly large town, worthy of making it onto his 1612 map of the state.

So much of the history and footprint of Virginia’s first peoples has been destroyed. It’s tragic that yet another site is targeted by bulldozers.

But if you’re like us, you’re probably wondering: Why now? Why, after Fluvanna and Louisa counties have been pursuing a joint water project since 2003, are we only recently discovering the drawbacks of the site they eventually selected?

The Monacans have an answer to that.

Marion Werkheiser, the tribe’s attorney in its fight against the project, says that the JRWA reached out to the Monacan nation only after it had picked the site and purchased the land.

At that point, she proposed, it seemed as if the tribe was being offered an essentially limited opportunity to salvage a few artifacts and any bones that might be uncovered from graves.

Additionally, Ms. Werkheiser said, the tribe initially did not want to take its opposition public for fear of alerting looters to Rassawek’s location.

However, as plans for the pump station marched forward, they concluded that it was better to risk desecration by grave robbers than to lose the site entirely.

The Monacans argue that other sites for the pump station were considered. But Point of Forks is the least expensive option.

We can’t fault the JRWA for preferring the least expensive site. Its principal duties are to provide water to its constituents and to save as much taxpayer money as possible.

A variety of state and federal laws and regulations require that it also pay attention to such matters as environmental protection and mitigation of loss at historic sites. But these are not its primary functions.

Whether the process is too far advanced to be greatly altered is an open question. Opponents are hoping that the importance of the site will cause the Army Corps of Engineers to deny a permit under terms of the National Historic Preservation Act.

They also have called on Gov. Ralph Northam to intervene, although this is not an issue that lies within the governor’s usual jurisdiction.

But because Rassawek is such an important site, it is indeed distressing that its significance was not taken into greater consideration at an earlier stage of the process.

If something can be done to save Rassawek, it should be done.

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