Amidst Abundant Rain, Eastern Virginia Still Faces Water Shortages

Virginia's coastal plain aquifer system

Virginia’s coastal plain aquifer system

by James A. Bacon

After getting soaked with rain over the past two weeks, most Virginians would find it difficult to imagine that the Old Dominion could ever face a water shortage. But the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission (JLARC) has been thinking beyond next week’s weather forecast, and while there are no immediate threats to the viability of Virginia’s water supply, the commission say that the long-term outlook in eastern Virginia is problematic.

The eastern, most populated portion of Virginia is heavily dependent upon a coastal plain aquifer system. Due to flat terrain and the omnipresence of wetlands, eastern Virginia is not topographically well suited to building water reservoirs. As a consequence, many water consumers rely upon well water.

At present small users (withdrawing less than 300,000 gallons per month) suck about 40 million gallons per day out of the aquifer system. Big users requiring permits are expected to withdraw between 43 and 58 million gallons per day. States JLARC in a new report, “Effectiveness of Virginia’s Water Resource Planning and Management“:

Assuming [the Department of Environmental Quality] achieves the proposed permit reductions it is currently negotiating and current reported withdrawals continue unchanged over the next few years, water levels are predicted to show only small declines and fall below regulatory minimum levels in only a few parts of the aquifer over 50 years. … Beyond the next few years, though, sustainability is tenuous and can be easily tipped out of balance. Potential growth in  both unpermitted and permitted withdrawals can easily push demand in excess of supply, leading again to unsustainable use.

While water shortages are unlikely in the next generation, the necessity to curtail major new water users is hampering economic development now. Difficulty in acquiring new permits will make it challenging for water-intensive industries to locate in eastern Virginia, states the report.

“About 85 percent of local economic developers responding to a JLARC survey reported that availability and affordability of water were important factors for at least one new project during the past three years,” the report says. Survey respondents told JLARC of three incidents in which projects did not materialize due to water permitting issues.

So, what’s to be done? Broadly speaking, JLARC identifies three strategies relevant to eastern Virginia: (1) conservation, (2) repair of leaky infrastructure, and (3) trading water.

Conservation. Conservation by existing users can postpone the need to spend billions of dollars developing new water supplies. Conservation measures can include installation of water-efficient appliances and fixtures, water-efficient landscaping and limits on landscape irrigation, rain harvesting, and tiered pricing structures that escalate charges for big users. Two paper mills — WestRock in West Point and International Paper in Franklin — account for nearly half of all coastal plain aquifer withdrawals. If the mills could find ways to cut water consumption, they could prolong the sustainability of the aquifer by many years.

Fixing water leaks. Local water supply plans report system losses ranging from 4% to 50%, depending upon the age of the infrastructure. JLARC cites two major public water suppliers in eastern Virginia which lost 15% and 17% of their water supply to leaks in 2011. Thanks to new technologies for monitoring water pipes, it is easier to identify leaks than ever. Water authorities across Virginia should be able to prioritize their maintenance spending to patch or replace the pipes with the worst leaks, deferring the need to spend billions of dollars on new capacity.

Groundwater trading. Groundwater trading is a market-based approach in which users buy and sell rights to groundwater consumption. Trading water rights would promote more efficient allocation of the scarce resource and would accommodate economic growth by allowing new users to access groundwater. However, there are prickly legal and philosophical issues associated with what amounts to converting a public resource into private property.

Unless Virginia can cobble together some combination of these solutions, we can expect water rates to rise in eastern Virginia as municipal and regional water authorities seek to ensure their long-term supplies. The Hampton Roads Sanitation District (HRSD), for instance, has begun studying an “aquifer injection” project that would inject about 120 million gallons per day of treated wastewater in the coastal aquifer, more than offsetting all current withdrawals. Among the benefits: reducing land subsidence that contributes to local flooding and reversing saltwater intrusion into the aquifer. However, the estimated price tag is hefty: about $1.2 billion in up-front capital and between $21 million to $43 milllion in annual operating costs.

JLARC urges legislators to tighten up standards for withdrawing water from the coastal aquifer, and capping the withdrawals that any single entity can make. Whatever the solution relied upon, Virginia needs to implement it soon. While water shortages may be decades away, the looming scarcity is affecting Virginia’s economic competitiveness today.