WASHINGTON, DC, December 16, 2009 (ENS) – Two conservation groups are suing the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for issuing a permit for a commercial marina in waters north of the Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge in Virginia Beach.

Friends of Back Bay and Back Bay Restoration Foundation claim in their lawsuit that increased motorized boating from the proposed 76-slip marina would destroy aquatic grasses in the shallow bay that are critical for preserving water quality and wildlife habitat for largemouth bass and migratory birds that winter and nest in the area.

“It is inappropriate to permit a project that will concentrate motor boat traffic right next to the refuge and in an area that is globally rare, and considered by our federal government as an Aquatic Resource of National Importance. In fact, it is illegal,” said attorney Marirose Pratt of the Southern Environmental Law Center, which is representing the groups in the case, filed today in U.S. District Court in Washington, DC.

The developer, Kenneth Douglas Wilkins, applied for a permit in 2005 to construct the marina in North and Shipps bays, tributaries of Back Bay. The agency received substantial public comment from citizens concerned about the project, including the two conservation groups, says Pratt.

During an environmental assessment of the marina permit, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which manages the Back Bay refuge, both recommended denying the project.

Yet, the Corps issued the permit in 2008, claiming a no-wake zone established around the shore of the refuge was sufficient to protect aquatic resources. The no-wake zone was put in place to protect the refuge from two state-run boat launches further south on the west side of the bay, but the Corps acknowledges the regulation has not been enforced and that the agency does not have money to enforce it, Pratt says.

“For more than 20 years, Friends of Back Bay secured congressional funding for the Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge to purchase land from willing sellers to buffer the bay from encroaching development. We see the proposed marina as detrimental to this end and have vigorously opposed it since its inception,” said Cheryl Petticrew of Friends of Back Bay.

“Having exhausted our appeals to the Corps, we find no alternative but to sue,” said Petticrew. “To do less would mean we have disregarded our duty to protect this Aquatic Resource of National Importance.”

Located within the barrier islands of southeastern Virginia, Back Bay constitutes the northern-most end of the Albemarle-Pamlico estuary, which the EPA designated as an “estuary of national significance.”

Back Bay is a shallow estuarine system with an average water depth of four feet, which fluctuates based on wind direction rather than lunar tides. Winds, especially from the northeast, can influence the water depth by as much as three feet. Such wind-tidal marsh communities are considered globally rare.

The Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge was established in 1938 with about 4,600 acres of land. The next year, President Franklin Roosevelt established a “proclamation boundary,” still in effect today, prohibiting migratory bird hunting in bay waters adjacent to refuge lands.

Over the last 20 years, with help from the Friends of Back Bay, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has expanded the land acreage to about 9,000, which has helped enhance overall water quality and wildlife habitat, and in 1994, attracted the first pair of bald eagles to nest in Back Bay in over 30 years.

Of more than 300 bird species identified at the refuge, 30 have been officially identified as “birds of conservation concern” for the southeastern coastal plain.

Aquatic grasses play a key role in the health and diversity of the ecosystem, providing food, shelter, and nursery grounds for fish and wildlife, the conservation groups point out. The submerged vegetation absorbs nutrients, stabilizes bottom sediments, removes suspended sediments from the water, and retards shoreline erosion by reducing wave energy. Once abundant in Back Bay and its tributaries, the vegetation began to decline in the mid-1980s, due to poor water quality caused by nutrient and sediment pollution.

Both public and private efforts to restore Back Bay’s aquatic grasses are underway. Studies by the Fish and Wildlife Service show increases in the grasses since 2003, including in the vicinity of the proposed marina.

Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2009. All rights reserved.