College Lake was created in 1934 by a dam across Blackwater Creek next to Lynchburg College (now University of Lynchburg)
Source: ESRI, ArcGIS Online
A dam was built across Blackwater Creek next to Lynchburg College in 1934, creating a 44-acre lake that was 30' deep in places. The college wanted a lake, and provided land for the Virginia Department of Highways to build a dam 300' long rather than a bridge when constructing the new highway (now US 221, Lakeside Drive) across the creek. A three-foot high rock wall was built across the spillway in 1935 to raise the lake level, but later enough was removed to restore the lake to its original level.
At least once, the lake was stocked with fish. A State Game and Fish Commission truck carrying fingerlings for release in other stream had a mechanical failure when near College Lake. Rather than let the fish die from heat and oxygen deprivation in the truck, the fingerlings were released into College Lake.
Since construction, sediments eroding from Blackwater Creek's 42,000 acre watershed have accumulated behind the dam. College Lake shrank in size to 25 acres, with an average depth of just seven feet. When Lynchburg College adopted the new "University of Lynchburg" name on July 1, 2018, the lake's name was left unmodified. The need to change the condition of the lake was described by the University of Lynchburg:1
The capacity of the spillway was inadequate to handle anticipated flooding. The dam was classified as "high hazard," based on Virginia's dam safety regulations that were updated in 2008, was at risk of failure in a major storm. In 2014 the City of Lynchburg began to assess how to meet the dam safety standards.
area of Maximum Probable Flood after a break of the College Lake dam
Source: City of Lynchburg, College Lake - Dam Inundation
There were two major choices: rehabilitate the dam and retain College Lake, or remove the dam and create a wetland. The city owned the road and dam, but it coordinated closely with the University of Lynchburg because it owned the bed of College Lake. College students had been studying the environmental conditions of the lake for nearly 50 years, and it was a convenient outdoor laboratory on the campus. A University of Lynchburg environmental science professor commented:2
As the studies were underway, heavy rains caused Blackwater Creek to flood on August 2, 2018. College Lake rose above Lakeside Drive and water began to erode the downstream side of the 35' high embankment. The city declared an emergency and evacuated 150 people from downstream of the dam, opening a shelter at E.C. Glass High School.3
the president of the University of Lynchburg, viewing damage to the embankment after College Lake overflowed
Source: University of Lynchburg, College Lake through the years
area below Lakeside Drive that would be affected by flooding if water flowed over the College Lake dam
Source: City of Lynchburg, College Lake - Dam Inundation
College Lake was drained while emergency repairs to the dam were implemented. A helicopter spread seeds of wetland plants over the exposed muddy sediments, to stabilize the lakebed and minimize sediments washing downstream.
College Lake was drained days after the flood on August 2, 2018
Source: University of Lynchburg, College Lake site to become wetland learning laboratory
Long-term costs to restore the lake and the dam were estimated initially around $20 million. Within three weeks after the flood, the City of Lynchburg and the University of Lynchburg adopted a joint long-term vision to replace College Lake:4
University of Lynchburg President Dr. Kenneth R. Garren said:5
The decision not to refill College Lake was changed two months later. Without the slackwater at the lake, Blackwater Creeks was carrying sediment directly to the James River and debris was clogging the spillway. An engineering study revealed that keeping the lake empty lake would not reduce the risk of another flood. A spokesperson for Lynchburg Water Resources said:6
As a temporary measure, College Lake was refilled in October, 2019, with plans to drain it permanently only after the City of Lynchburg built a four-lane bridge over Blackwater Creek. 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.
replacing the College Lake dam will require building a new US 221 (Lakeside Drive) bridge over Blackwater Creek
When City Council approved the first $10 million for those costs, once member noted that the College Lake costs would delay other previously-planned projects in the Capital Improvement Plan - but he voted in favor, because the dam replacement was such an obvious priority. A 25-year storm event could lead to water overtopping the dam, so there was a 4% chance every year of a major disaster until the dam was removed. One short-term option was to lower the spillway by 5-10 feet, reducing the lake level and lowering the risk of a dam breach, but that would cause massive amounts of silt to wash downstream.7
the USGS gauge at College Lake, on US 221 (Lakeside Drive) bridge in Lynchburg, allows a faster response in a future rainstorm
The construction of the new bridge and conversion of College Lake into a wetland was scheduled as a six-year project, with completion in 2025.8
area affected by the conversion of College Lake to a wetland
Source: City of Lynchburg, City and University of Lynchburg Announce Phase One of College Lake Dam Removal Project
Blackwater Creek downstream of College Lake and US 221 (Lakeside Drive) in April, 2019
College Lake in April, 2019