Nice & Curious Questions

Edwin S. Clay III and Patricia Bangs




It's Not My Neighbor's Water


Turning on the Tap in Virginia


An odd thing happened during the worst of Virginia’s drought this fall. The City of Fairfax, which owns its own water supply system and gets its water from reservoirs on Goose Creek and Beaverdam in Loudoun County, initiated voluntary water restrictions. City officials felt voluntary conservation was prudent.


By contrast, neighbors on the other side of the city line, in Fairfax County, obtain their water from completely different sources. The Fairfax County Water Authority draws its water from the Potomac River to serve the northwestern side of the county and from the Occoquan River to serve the southeastern side. Unaffected by low water supplies, county residents were not called upon to conserve.


Commonwealth residents, especially those in urban areas, are rarely curious about the source of their tap water. But the water for those morning showers has to come from somewhere.


The state has an estimated 49,350 miles of rivers and streams divided into nine major water basins – the Potomac/Shenandoah, Rappahannock, York, James, Chesapeake Bay/Small Coastal, Chowan River/Albemarle Sound, Roanoke, New, Tennessee/Big Sandy. Water supply in the Old Dominion originates in these watersheds.


According to a 2003 state report “The Status of Virginia’s Water Resources,” the top 50 “water withdrawers” in the commonwealth included Newport News, Richmond, Norfolk, Fairfax County Water Authority, Virginia Beach, the Appomattox Water Authority and Portsmouth in the top half of the list. 


The main water source for Newport News is a reservoir system along the Chickahominy River. The Appomattox Water Authority, which serves the cities of Petersburg and Colonial Heights, as well as surrounding counties, gets its water from Lake Chesdin. Tap water for Virginia Beach residents travels 90 miles from Lake Gaston on the Virginia/North Carolina border.


In fact, Virginia Beach’s water supply is the result of a 25-year-old “water war,” according to an article in the Virginian-Pilot (“Water Supply Helped Virginia Beach to Flourish,” November 5, 2007). In the early 1980s, Virginia Beach, with twice the population of Norfolk, had outgrown the older city’s water system. Norfolk, concerned about the lack of a reliable source of water, had placed a moratorium on development. Alternatives, such as building a lake near Petersburg or a reservoir in Assamoosick Swamp in Southhampton County were too expensive. The Virginia Beach City Council decided to find its own water source. While there was opposition for many years, the pipeline, once open, has allowed 14,000 new homes and businesses to hook up to the city water system.


While rain has alleviated drought conditions slightly, last October, a number of jurisdictions imposed both voluntary and mandatory water conservation to safeguard their water supplies. As of mid-November, the City of Manassas remained under a mandatory water conservation notice: Lake Manassas had not returned to its normal levels. Charlottesville also imposed mandatory water restrictions last August and published 50 Ways to Save. These include such tips traditional tips, from running the dishwasher and washing machine only when full, to more creative ideas such as developing a compost pile rather than using a garbage disposal.


When Virginia’s freshwater streams are replenished, the total combined flow is estimated at 25 billion gallons a day. For areas of Virginia still under a drought warning, that has yet to happen.


Perhaps Samuel Taylor Coleridge said it best. His ancient mariner, adrift in the ocean, lamented: “Water, water everywhere, nor any drop to drink.” Or, the updated version: “Water, water everywhere, but not a drop to drink.”


NEXT:  Timing Does Matter: Stoplights in Virginia


-- December 10, 2007














About "Nice & Curious"


In 1691, a group of English wits, calling themselves the Athenian Society, founded a publication entitled, "The Athenian Gazette or Causical Mercury, Resolving All the Most Nice and Curious Questions proposed by the Ingenious." The editors accepted questions posed by readers on any and all topics, and sought the most ingenious answers.


Inspired by their example, Edwin S. Clay III, president of the Virginia Library Association and Director of the Fairfax County Public Library, created an occasional column on Virginia facts that may require "ingenious answers" of the type favored by those 17th-century wags.


If you have a query, e-mail him at


Fairfax County Public Library staff Patricia Bangs, Lois Kirkpatrick and MaryAnn Sheehan assist in the writing, editing and research of the column.


Read their profile and peruse back issues.