And, the winner is: Willard “Will” Smith
For 50 years, the water and run-off exiting Lake Tecumseh’s (Brinson Inlet) small spillway has been a cause of the degraded health in Back Bay, starting at Hell’s Point Creek and the North Bay entry points. Due to the lake’s shallow depth and its ability to discharge sediment into the creek during wind-tide changes, the lake’s water quality was struggling and nearly inhabitable. Fish, wildlife, and submerged aquatic vegetation (SAV) could not get established or sustain itself. Will took on the job to prove that Lake Tecumseh was definitely a major factor in the water quality once it entered Back Bay. He then assumed the daunting task of fixing the problem. He determined that the sediment was actually entering the creek in greater amounts than originally thought, and that the main reason was that Lake Tecumseh, due to its shallow depth and muddy bottom, could not maintain a normal water level during sustained wind events. The dirt, mud, and sediment were constantly discharged and the water clarity was less than 6 inches.
Will and others decided that the answer was to construct weirs at the mouth of the spillway and at a small ditch to the northwest to maintain a constant water level in the lake. The western shore of the lake also needed to be widened and strengthened. It had deteriorated to a point that it nearly breached into Hell’s Point Creek and would then require a substantially greater engineering effort. Several years of data were collected to include wind direction, flooding events, and average water depths. From this data, it was possible to calculate the ideal water level needed in Lake Tecumseh to promote fish, wildlife, and vegetation growth while allowing for normal tidal changes and flushing actions. Another concern was prohibiting fish migration into the lake if a weir were in place.
The very first year the weir became active, the water quality leaving the lake improved so substantially, that locals noticed the clarity and tannic color immediately. For the first time in over a generation, there was true SAV growth from the lake to North Bay and throughout the northern shores. The weir was allowing the natural water flow from the lake to occur. It was keeping the sediment in the lake and not flushing into the bays. Fish samples taken by the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries showed species that had not been in the lake in recent memory were now present. Increased numbers of native fish were seen as well. Fish were finding their way over the weir during normal flood tides.
Will not only had to battle the scientific data and nature to get the weir built, but also had to field a never-ending avalanche of emails that attacked the weir, blaming it for flooding private property as far away as Currituck. The last few years’ flooding was being blamed on the weir and he had to explain the data to each and every one of the concerned citizens. It was very difficult for Will knowing that the weir was a grand success, but some believed it a disaster. Of course, the flooding and the construction of the weir were simply bad timing and coincidence.
Will began his career with the US Fish and Wildlife Service in 1998 as a biologist in the Ecological Services Division having grown up in Florida and South Carolina. He is a graduate of the University of Florida with degrees in Wildlife Ecology and Environmental Engineering with specialties in wetland restoration and natural stream channel design. Will lives in Gloucester, Virginia with his wife Kim and daughter Mackenzie. Will is constantly amazed at how quickly nature responds once the right conditions are restored to degraded sites.
On behalf of the Back Bay Restoration Foundation Board of Directors, it is with great honor and pleasure that we award the 2011 Conservationist of the Year to Mr. Willard Smith for his steadfast and successful work to improve the Back Bay Watershed.
President, Back Bay Restoration Foundation