Wednesday, January 3, 2024

Getting a Handle on Water use and Supply

At the beginning of October last fall I took a look at the online USGS stream gauge on the Rappahannock River near Fredericksburg VA. My intention was to get a typical flow number to make a quick calculation on what the impact of the recently approved data centers in that area might have on river flow. However, the flow on that day was at 11% of normal. That stopped me in my tracks. I did a little digging and I discovered that in September the Rappahannock River had hit the lowest flow in a century.

We are not in a statewide drought, yet. As of last week, about 50% of the Commonwealth is in drought.  This past year has been a dry year with low flow in many streams, but the last big drought in Virginia was a three year drought at the turn of this century. The drought from 1999 to 2002 led to Virginia first requiring local water supply planning. 

Step by step, Virginia has been moving towards the goal of planning for sustainable water; though, we are still far from that goal. The first step began before that drought. It was the Virginia Ground Water Management Act of 1992.  That Act mandates the regulation of large groundwater withdrawals in certain portions of the Commonwealth designated as Groundwater Management Areas to prevent adverse impacts due to over utilization of the resource. 

The Groundwater Management Act requires “all persons” who withdraw more than 300,000 gallons of groundwater in any month within a designated groundwater management areas must obtain a groundwater withdrawal permit. The Groundwater Management Areas were expanded effective 2014 to include the Counties of Caroline, King and Queen, Gloucester, Mathews, Middlesex, Essex, King George, Westmoreland, Richmond, Lancaster and Northumberland; and the parts of Spotsylvania, Stafford, Prince William, Fairfax and Arlington Counties east of Interstate 95; and the City of Alexandria. The Eastern Shore Groundwater Management Area includes Accomack and Northampton counties.

DEQ manages groundwater withdrawal permits within the Eastern Virginia Groundwater Management Area and Eastern Shore Groundwater Management Area as well as surface water withdrawal permits statewide. The rest of the groundwater in the Commonwealth is not managed, yet. Groundwater management areas will be added in the future to include other groundwater basins that experience over withdrawal. The groundwater study in Fauquier County seems to be teeing up the Culpeper Basin as the next groundwater management area.

The Water Supply Planning (WSP) program was created after the 1999-2002 drought and requires all localities in Virginia to submit a water supply plan, either individually, or as part of a regional planning unit. Plans include key information on what water sources and how much water they currently use. The Plans include projections for when future water will be needed and how much will be needed for a variety of categories of water uses. This planning includes both surface water and groundwater.

DEQ compiles the information included in each Plan, as well as the water reported water withdrawals collected through the Annual Withdrawal Reporting from Water Withdrawal Permitting Programs to create a model used to evaluate the sustainability of our water resources.  The results of this collective analysis are published in the State Water Resources Plan.

The State Water Resources Plan is published at five-year intervals. The first State Plan was published in 2015 and the second plan was delayed due to the pandemic shutdowns and was published in 2022. Now, DEQ has amended the regulations to require the consolidation of the 48 water plans into 26 to give more meaningful information about connected watersheds . Prince William, Loudoun and Fairfax whose water supplies are interconnected are required to report on a consolidated basis.  

In addition, in 2018, the Virginia Legislature passed SB 211 which was signed into law by the Governor. This bill amends the enabling legislation for comprehensive planning to emphasize availability, quality and sustainability of groundwater and surface water resources on a County level as part of the comprehensive plan.

Comprehensive planning was already required and is not new. Groundwater and surface water are protected under current legislation and are reported and forecast under the water supply planning. This law made one change: in preparation of a comprehensive plan, the local planning commission must consider not only groundwater and surface water; but groundwater and surface water availability, quality and sustainability.  Water resources can only be managed in conjunction with land use decisions on a local level. Thus, water sustainability must be considered with all land use changes which changes the demand for and the availability of water.

The Commonwealth once thought it had an endless supply of water. It does not. As the DEQ consolidates the information and broadens their reach to ensure a sustainable water supply. When Prince William County prepared the most recent version of the Comprehensive Plan, availability, quality and sustainability of water was not included.

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