Monday, February 8, 2010

Groundwater Management in Virginia

The Virginia Ground Water Management Act of 1992 mandates the regulation of large groundwater withdrawals in certain portions of the Commonwealth to prevent adverse impacts due to over utilization of the resource. There are currently two proposed changes to the regulations. It has been proposed to expand the Eastern Virginia Ground Water Management Area to include the Counties of Caroline, King and Queen, Gloucester, Mathews, Middlesex, Essex, King George, Westmoreland, Richmond, Lancaster and Northumberland; parts of Spotsylvania, Stafford, Prince William, Fairfax and Arlington Counties; and the City of Alexandria. This would expand groundwater withdrawals beyond the confines of the Tidewater, west of the fall zone, into another groundwater basin. Currently, this Ground Water Management Area includes every county and city south of the York River and its tributaries and east of I 95, except Gloucester, Mathews, Middlesex Counties. The proposed expansion would bring these three counties on the edge of the Chesapeake Bay, and the corresponding area north of the York and its tributaries, into the regulated area. The boundaries of the Eastern Shore Ground Water Management Area would remain unchanged.

Ground water levels in the Tidewater region of Virginia’s coastal plain are continuing to decline. Impacts from groundwater withdrawals are propagating along the fall zone into the coastal plain and have the potential to interfere with wells in these areas. However, you cannot manage the several groundwater basins as if they were a single basin, but you cannot ignore the interrelation between the basins. The smallest of examples in this area is Bull Run which feeds the Occoquan Reservoir originates in the Piedmont. The coastal plain has been the area of the most intense growth and the area was forecast by Virginia Tech to have inadequate reserves to meet the next drought if not addressed. Given current ground water declines, the entire coastal plain aquifer system must be managed to maintain a sustainable future supply of ground water. Virginia is blessed with what appears to be rich resources of water, but they are not infinite. Surprisingly little hard data on the groundwater has been collected. As a much wiser man than I pointed out, without data there can be no understanding of our resources and our planet. What level of withdrawal does the Agency propose to allow in each basin?

The second proposed change is a little frightening because it both ambiguous and seemingly ambitious in its reach: the Board and DEQ propose “to consider amending the Ground Water Withdrawal Regulation, 9 VAC 25 610 to address the increasing demand on limited groundwater resources, changes to the administrative review process, and regulatory changes necessitated by new information on the coastal plain aquifer system.” Virginia is estimated to use 188 million gallons of groundwater each day to supply public water systems, industry, agriculture, commercial operations and mining. This excludes over 40 million gallons a day that supplies private domestic well in the state including my well. While applaud the agency’s proactive stance, to take action to manage and maintain our water resources before crisis strikes, I wonder how can the DEQ even propose regulations on diverse geology, demand and groundwater basins and do so without data. Though the goal is laudable, what methods are they proposing to manage, control, protect and allocate a resource that is not well understood? The agencies’ reasons for proposing this action echo and elaborate on their explanation of reasons for proposing to expand the Ground Water Management Area, but that is not enough.
Even more ominous, the Board is preparing “to address for which users and for what purposes this finite resource should be allocated” and “to address what constitutes an adequate margin of safety and what technical criteria are defensible for determining whether or not to issue a permit and for what amounts.” All of this appears to signal a readiness and desire to control the most valuable resource in the commonwealth of Virginia. Without water there can be no life, no economy. More importantly, the Agency seems to have determined that allocation of water resources will be performed by government with a strategy or manner of its choosing. The agency proposes to allocate the most valuable resource in the commonwealth of Virginia without answering the question of How should water be allocated. The Agency is determined to proceed to avoid ground water declines. Before the Agency proceeds to manage the groundwater use for Virginia, the people must determine how this resource should be managed.

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