The Virginian-Pilot
                             THE VIRGINIAN-PILOT 
              Copyright (c) 1996, Landmark Communications, Inc.

DATE: Thursday, August 15, 1996             TAG: 9608150325
SECTION: LOCAL                   PAGE: B1   EDITION: FINAL 
DATELINE: VIRGINIA BEACH                    LENGTH:   92 lines


When rain falls and northeast winds howl, the Eastern Branch of the Lynnhaven River rises up and rolls south.

The swollen river, charged with salty water from the Chesapeake Bay, muscles through a series of canals and creeks into North Landing River and on to Currituck Sound in North Carolina.

That salt then kills off the submerged vegetation and freshwater fish that once were among the sound's great assets.

That's the conclusion of Currituck County, N.C., officials and wildlife biologists who have watched the water surge into their prized sound.

Couldn't Virginia Beach, the city's southern neighbor wants to know, agree to a plan to slow that water down? All that's required, the county says, is a low dam, or weir, in the water's path - perhaps along West Neck Creek - to trap the water long enough to let the salt settle.

To outdoor lovers who convinced Virginia Beach to designate West Neck Creek a scenic waterway, the idea sounds perfectly terrible.

``It's a treasure and we need to protect it,'' said Lillie Gilbert, co- owner of Wild River Outfitters who spearheaded the West Neck Creek designation and who has ``adopted'' part of the river to keep it clear. ``I think free-flowing rivers ought to be left free-flowing.''

Added former City Council member Robert K. Dean, who often canoes the creek and helps clear it of debris, ``Putting a weir in to attempt to stop salinity is the most outlandish thing I've heard of.''

The real culprit is not West Neck Creek, officials say, but Canal No. 2, the gouged-out stream that the Soil Conservation Service built in the 1960s and the Army Corps of Engineers deepened and widened in the 1980s to protect residential and shopping areas near Lynnhaven Mall from flooding.

The canal ducks under Virginia Beach Boulevard and the Virginia Beach-Norfolk Expressway near Lynnhaven Parkway, courses through Oceana West Industrial Park and joins London Bridge Creek near Shipps Corner - where it becomes West Neck Creek.

The Corps is looking at the possibility of building a weir to slow the surging water. The size, shape and location of the concrete and earthen structure won't be known until the study is complete.

For its part, the Corps has plenty of unanswered questions about the benefits of the project.

``It will have its own environmental impact,'' concedes project manager Robert Bartel. ``It could be an impediment for fish migration. It could jeopardize the intended, flood-control purpose of the project.''

The Corps will finish the preliminary phase of the study in September, then, if warranted, launch a one-year feasibility study. This, to the government, is a fast-track project. Currituck County would foot the bill for one-fourth the cost, Uncle Sam the rest.

An interested bystander is the city of Chesapeake.

The city draws millions of gallons of water daily from the Northwest River, which, when winds blow from the the south, gets undrinkable saline water from the Currituck.

Chesapeake officials have been present at meetings held by the Corps. So far, Virginia Beach hasn't shown much interest.

``We're fearful Virginia Beach has the attitude that all North Carolinians are lumped together with those who opposed the Lake Gaston pipeline,'' said Currituck County Commissioner Owen Etheridge.

In 1964, after Hurricane Cleo flooded houses and washed out streets, Virginia Beach pushed for approval of a drainage canal to rush storm water out of the huge Lynnhaven flood zone. The project went through over the objection of North Carolina, which predicted it would turn the sound into a silted and salty desert.

By the mid-1980s, it appeared the dire predictions were well founded.

The normal salinity of Currituck Sound is around 2 parts of salt per thousand, said North Carolina wildlife biologist Yates Barber, who has long monitored the saline content of the sound.

Since the mid-1960s, when Canal No. 2 was built, the salinity shot up as high as 10 parts per thousand, putting the sound's ecosystem in jeopardy. ``By 1988, virtually all the submerged aquatic vegetation in Currituck Sound had died out,'' Barber said. ``And the black bass fishery had just disappeared.''

Barber, retired from state and federal conservation posts, now volunteers his time to monitor the flow from the Lynnhaven River every time there's a sustained northeaster. He said flows in Canal No. 2 reach as high as 19 parts per thousand, a nearly lethal level.

``We want to see if there isn't a way for the people of Virginia Beach to accomplish their flood control purposes without sending all that salty water down our way,'' Barber said.

Beach officials are aware of Currituck's request but say they don't plan to participate in discussions until after the preliminary study.

Dean said Currituck's problem may not be salinity but siltation from all the residential construction taking place in wetlands near the sound. ``They seem to be pointing the finger north and perhaps they need to look at their own back yard,'' he said. ILLUSTRATION: Map

KEN WRIGHT/The Virginian-Pilot