Thursday, September 3, 2015

We Need Sustainable Groundwater Use in Virginia

USGS  2010

According to the U.S. Geological Survey estimates for 2010 Virginia uses 299 million gallons of groundwater each and every day which is about 20% of all fresh water consumed daily in Virginia (this excludes use for thermal electric power generation). Of this groundwater use the three largest categories of use are public supply groundwater wells (71 million gallons a day), private/rural water wells (124 million gallons a day) and self-supplied industrial wells (74 million gallons a day) Domestic water use includes indoor and outdoor use at homes and apartments in Virginia for drinking, food preparation, washing clothes and dishes, bathing and flushing toilets. Common outdoor uses are watering lawns and gardens or maintaining pools or landscape features at your home. Domestic water is either self-supplied or provided by public water companies. Industrial use would be manufacturing sites including paper mills, printing companies, breweries and wineries. Public supply water wells supply community domestic and commercial needs like churches, schools and offices.

According to the USGS data, the 124 million gallons a day of self-supplied domestic water from private wells provides 1,650,000 Virginians or 21% of the population of the Commonwealth with their water. These rural or semi-rural wells are drilled in rural or semi-rural locations throughout Virginia. Nationally only about 14% of domestic water is from private wells. The typical Virginian uses 75 gallons of water a day for all domestic uses and is the same for public supplies households as well as households supplied by private well. In most states, households on private well use less water than those on public water supplies.

Despite being a very rural state, less than 3% of fresh water withdrawn from rivers, streams, and groundwater is used for agriculture. It rains in Virginia and only 1.4% of fresh water is used for irrigation which includes water for crop irrigation, frost protection, application of chemicals, weed control, field preparation, crop cooling, harvesting, dust suppression, as well as watering of golf courses, parks, nurseries, turf farms, cemeteries, and landscape-watering for businesses and public buildings.

At one firth of the total water supply groundwater is an important component of the water supply. Sustainable groundwater use in Virginia is not tracked or managed by DEQ or any other agency for that matter. Groundwater is not unlimited. Our groundwater is at risk. Despite the water rich climate of our region, the Atlantic Coastal Plain aquifer is under stress and is being used beyond it recharge rate. This has been confirmed by measurements of groundwater levels, modeling of the aquifer system by the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) and measurements of changes in gravity by the GRACE satellite project at NASA over the past 12 years of data collecting.

The rate of groundwater withdrawal from the Virginia Coastal Plain is currently unsustainable. The withdrawal rate of groundwater increased continuously during the 20th century. By the 2003 the withdrawal rates from Coastal Plain aquifers in Virginia totaled approximately 117 million gallons per day (DEQ). As a result, groundwater levels have declined by as much as 200 feet near the large withdrawal centers of West Point and Franklin, Virginia the home of paper mills that are large industrial users of groundwater. The water level has continued to fall despite the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality (VA DEQ) attempting to regulate groundwater withdrawals in the Virginia Coastal Plain through the VA DEQ Groundwater Withdrawal Permit Program over the past 12 years. To make that groundwater sustainable, we need to reduce use or increase recharge otherwise Virginia will find that areas within the historic boundary of the aquifer begin to go dry. In order to prevent this first Virginia needs to know how much groundwater there is and what is sustainable use is. Groundwater resources are property and should be protected for all property owners.

Less is known about the sustainability of the smaller groundwater basins in the region, but their problems are still at a more manageable stage. Our own Culpeper Basin that feeds the private wells in the Rural Crescent of Prince William and areas of Loudoun and Fauquier counties as well as areas beyond our region. We now have tools (groundwater models and data from the GRACE project) that can help develop a picture of the volume of the water within the groundwater basin and at what rate it is being used and at what rate it is being recharged. We need to know if the current and planned use of our groundwater is sustainable even in drought years. An understanding of the impact on our essential water resources from ground cover by roads and buildings impacting recharge to proposed water withdrawals can be used to determine if a proposed additional use of groundwater is sustainable before it is granted.

How any proposed land use, or business or building impact water and groundwater sustainability should be one of the first questions asked. The right of existing property owners to their water is primary and valuable and should not be compromised or impaired to generate profits for others by the taking of their rights to their water. Because there are natural fluctuations in groundwater levels it is easy to mask or ignore signs of the beginnings of destruction of the water resources that we depend on. The USGS has been smoothing the water level data from at least one well in our region to eliminate what appeared to be an anomaly, but instead may be the first indications of a problem. Fluctuations in climate or rainfall and imperfect measurements and vantage points mask trends from clear view.

How the resource is owned or not owned can potentially create a resource abusive atmosphere where taking what I can without regard for sustainability is rewarded for a period of time. No groundwater resource is infinite and we need to preserve and protect our groundwater which belongs to all the landowners by recognizing its value, that it is property and by using it sustainably. The permitting process for zoning changes and building permits for large users of groundwater needs to examine and consider the impact on and sustainable use of groundwater resources in that area. The rights to groundwater need to be quantified, so they can be protected.

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