Drought or flood?

Buffeted by weather extremes,  Virginia tries to balance its water supply.

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Print this page by Nicole Anderson Ellis

On New Year’s Day, according to the U.S. Drought Mitigation Center, nearly two-thirds of the commonwealth was labeled “drought” or “abnormally dry.” 

But what’s normal anymore?

Last year, 60 percent of the U.S. experienced drought conditions, and the dire consequences filled national news:  desiccated farmland across the Midwest;  raging firestorms; fears that the increasing shallow Mississippi River might close to shipping.

Virginia’s water woes are less TV-ready.  In the last two months of 2012, the commonwealth got 56 percent of its expected rainfall, yet the average Virginian took little note of the crisis at home.  “We can still turn on the tap and water flows, so we think everything’s okay,” explains Rebecca Rubin, founder, president and CEO of Marstel-Day, a Fredericksburg-based environmental consulting firm specializing in water risk management.

Compounding the sense of abundance is the still-low price of water.  While water rates in parts of the commonwealth are climbing (up 25 percent in Virginia Beach since 2001), Virginians still pay relatively little.  “We’re not seeing the same costs they’re seeing elsewhere,” notes David Crawford, president of Salem-based Rainwater Management Solutions.  “Atlanta’s paying $7.25 per 1,000 gallons.  Here in Virginia, we’re at half that.”
Water use may not be a major concern for most Virginia families, but increasingly it’s a driving force behind decisions in the board room. “It is the single largest risk to your business,” says Rubin.  “Even more than energy, water is the basis of the economy.  Major corporations recognize this risk to their bottom line.” 

And it’s shaping how — and where   — they grow.

“The days of being able to ignore water quality and quantity in Virginia are over,” says Virginia Tech professor Stephen Schoenholtz.

Tracking risks worldwide
Consider the sudden interest in a new website, Aqueduct (  A project of the nonprofit World Resources Institute (WRI), this interactive map allows users to examine water risks — drought, flooding and pollution — around the world.

“Water risks mean different things to different industries,” explains WRI spokesman Rob Kimball.  A semiconductor manufacturer needs pure water, so the risk is contamination.  Power generation requires large volumes, so risks include drought or nearby development that competes for water.  Flooding threatens infrastructure and supply chains. 

Aqueduct collects, compiles, models and maps these factors, worldwide. “Executives and investors can, at a glance, see where and how businesses are facing water risk,” Kimball says. 

The website launched on Jan. 30.  In one month it had 25,000 users, ranging from Fortune 500 companies — McDonald’s, Procter & Gamble, etc. — to government agencies and academics. “We’ve been blown away,”  Kimball says.

The tool allows users to customize concerns and compare locations, but it’s most useful on a watershed, or regional, scale.  “Once you start to have community focus, there’s no substitute for on-the-ground expertise,” Kimball says.

That’s when Schoenholtz gets a call.  A professor in the College of Natural Resources and Environment at Virginia Tech, Schoenholtz runs Virginia’s Water Resources Research Center, a clearinghouse for water-related data.  When Virginia leaders have questions about quantity and quality, this is where they turn. 

A recent, typical inquiry came from a county economic development director courting a new bottling plant.  The company wanted assurances about groundwater supply.  “Businesses looking at locating in Virginia are certainly going to examine water access,” Schoenholtz says. “It’s going to be a key factor in any economic development.”

Rubin agrees. “Name any business on the block, and in some way it’s dependent on water.” Her company, Marstel-Day, has crafted water-management and climate-readiness plans for clients ranging from the Department of Defense to the University of Mary Washington.  “It’s the single largest risk to Virginia businesses, and that’s true if you have too little or too much.”

Virginia faces both problems.  Last year, the state got 93 percent of its normal annual rainfall (compared with the past 30 years), according to the Virginia Drought Monitoring Task Force.  But that’s an averaged, year-round, statewide number.  Last fall Roanoke saw roughly half its normal rainfall while other parts of the state got drenched.  “Wet areas are getting wetter, and dry areas are getting drier,” notes Jonathan Lanciani, co-founder and president of Sustainable Water, an industrial wastewater recycling firm based in Richmond.

For example, the York-James region, which runs between these two rivers from Charles City County southeast to Newport News, got nearly 13 inches, 125 percent of its five-year average.  Likewise, Southeastern Virginia saw 141 percent of its “normal” rain, and the Eastern Shore got 146 percent of its typical autumn rain.  One result: flooding. 

During heavy rain it’s increasingly common to find some Norfolk roads underwater, says Mayor Paul Fraim.  “As you might imagine, that has impacts on our businesses.”

NewsA dry, hot decade
So, what’s behind Virginia’s water extremes? “Various factors,” says Scott Kudlas, director of the Virginia Office of Water Supply for the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ).  “Some we can control, and some we can’t.”

Kudlas oversees plans for managing access to water across the commonwealth.  The fact that most Virginians haven’t noticed the state’s current water problems speaks to the program’s success, though careful budgeting can stretch supply only so far.  “We’re reaching a critical point,” says Kudlas.  “The last 10 years have been significantly drier than the rest of our recorded history.”

Hotter, too. According to the DEQ’s “2012 Status of Virginia’s Water Resources” (aka “The Governor’s Report”) the spring of 2012 was Virginia’s hottest in 118 years. 

As Virginia’s climate changes, we have less applicable experience and less reliable data on which to base plans.  “Our ability to predict droughts and flooding and severe storms is being challenged,” notes Virginia Tech’s Schoenholtz.  Mega-storms may make headlines, but when it comes to the water supply, the crisis is often unseen.

As heat rises, so do rates of evaporation.  When droughts include prolonged heat spells, the state not only has less water coming down; it’s got more going up into the air.  Consider Lake Chesdin, a 3,100-acre impoundment on the Appomattox River that provides drinking water to the cities of Petersburg and Colonial Heights, as well as three counties: Dinwiddie, Prince George and Chesterfield.

According to the Appomattox River Water Authority (ARWA), Lake Chesdin loses 16 million gallons of water a day … to evaporation.  When temperatures top 100 degrees, that number jumps by a million gallons, or two. 

A combination of heat-driven evaporation and low rainfall dropped Lake Chesdin by a full five feet last August, forcing the ARWA to impose mandatory water restrictions on its clients.  In addition, the ARWA is currently awaiting approval to restrict the daily flow of water through the dam to the Appomattox River.

Not enough rain
Water usage is something we can control; at least somewhat.  “Per household use of water is trending downward,” says Philip Allin, chairman of Fairfax Water, which serves 1.7 million customers in Northern Virginia.  “For a lot of reasons.”  People are more educated about water waste.  In addition, today’s houses — our washing machines, dishwashers, showerheads — are more efficient.  In the 1970s an average toilet used 5 gallons per flush; today’s standard is 1.6.

As a result of these savings, the 2012 Governor’s Report showed Virginia’s public water supply consumption — the water sold to schools, houses, restaurants, and stores — at a five-year low, down by 4.1 million gallons a day.

Manufacturing consumption also was down. Some credit efficiency.  Some blame the economy. Whatever the cause, Virginia’s manufacturing sector used 15 percent less water than usual last year.  Mining use is down by 5 percent; the commercial sector, down by 8 percent. “We’re using less water today than we did 20 years ago,” notes Norfolk Mayor Fraim.  “Some machines, some people, some businesses, are thriftier now than they used to be.”

So if we’re using less water, what’s the problem?  The agriculture water-use data provides a clue.  Surface water used by farmers was up 75 percent last year.  There’s just not enough rain.  “We’ve seen trends recently with an increase in irrigation, as a result of this dry period,” Kudlas says.

“We’re facing unprecedented water scarcity,” notes Lanciani of Sustainable Water in Richmond.  “At the same time, we’re having population growth.”

Virginians are using less water, but every year there are more Virginians.  From 2010 to 2012, the commonwealth added nearly 184,000 new residents, a 2.3 percent increase, exceeding the nation’s population growth rate. “When you have a shrinking supply and at the same time growing populations, you feel it,” says Kudlas.

Fairfax tops the list of growing localities, adding 30,000 new residents in the last two years alone, according to 2013 figures released by the University of Virginia’s Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service.  Norfolk’s swelling, too; 3 percent over the 2010 census, says Mayor Fraim.

Last year Chesterfield County ranked eighth in the state for population gain, growing by 2 percent.  In the midst of the most recent contraction of Lake Chesdin and subsequent water restrictions, Chesterfield finalized plans for that growth by approving its new comprehensive plan.  “As far as water resources being a limit for growth, there wasn’t a lot of discussion,” explains Edgar Wallin, vice chairman of Chesterfield’s Planning Commission and the representative from Lake Chesdin’s district.  “We haven’t approached it that way.”

Consequences of runoff
Yet growth impacts water, coming and going.  New residents create a new need. “In new communities, when you’re trying to get yards established and trees established, you need a lot of water,” explains Fairfax Water’s Allin.

When it doesn’t rain, more water is pulled from natural sources.  In Fairfax, that’s primarily the Potomac River; in Chesterfield County, it’s Lake Chesdin or the James River. 

“As Virginia experiences urbanization, suburbanization and population growth, we’re seeing more and more pressure on our water resources,” explains Schoenholtz, of the Water Center office.

Then, when it does rain, those same subdivisions create a separate problem:  stormwater runoff. When rainfall hits greenspace — forest canopy, cornfields, meadows, etc. — it is slowed and allowed to soak into the ground to be naturally filtered of pollutants and to recharge local groundwater supplies. “In 2013 we have more impermeable surfaces — more roads and rooftops — that speed that water into gutters,” notes Sustainable Water’s Lanciani.

The consequences include increased erosion, flooding and waterways sullied with sediment and pollutants washed from roadbeds. This situation threatens the quality of water in Virginia’s streams and rivers, and challenges communities — including most of Northern Virginia — that rely on surface water for drinking water. 

But those relying on groundwater are impacted, too. More than 172 million gallons are pumped from Virginia aquifers every day, and most of that is for public water supplies.  Recent advancements in our understanding of hydrology explain that, under the best circumstances, aquifers recharge far slower than previously thought.  Pavement channels stormwater off the ground and into streams, further diminishing local recharge.  “As little as a quarter of an inch makes it back every year,” says Kudlas. 

This imbalance in give and take is clear in Virginia’s sinking groundwater levels; as much as two feet a year in the Coastal Plain, a groundwater management area stretching from King William County to the North Carolina line, and from the Atlantic to a western boundary roughly following Interstate 95.  The aquifers in this region serve 13 counties and 11 cities, including Williamsburg, Virginia Beach and Norfolk.  “Everyone in that aquifer impacts everyone else,” says Kudlas. 

Most vulnerable to the emptying of these aquifers are those with limited alternatives.  Norfolk’s public water system taps into Coastal Plain groundwater through four large wells, making the city interested in the fate of the aquifers; but not fearful.

“We pump the wells every now and then, just to exercise them,” explains Fraim, the city’s mayor.  “But we don’t rely on them.”  The city of Norfolk has a conjunctive water system.  This means its eggs are spread over many baskets:  the four wells, plus two rivers (the Blackwater and the Nottaway), plus nine reservoirs.  Thanks to this diversification, notes Harry Kenyon, director of the Norfolk Department of Utilities, the city had “no effects from last year’s drought.”

Few are so lucky.  Across Virginia, municipalities are seeking tools to bridge current or future gaps between supply and need.  The technique of choice is increased storage, or stockpiling water. “Given population growth, we’re planning for increased needs,”  says Allin of Fairfax Water. Fairfax’s plan includes the purchase of a soon to be mined-out quarry that would draw an additional 8 billion gallons from the Potomac, doubling Fairfax Water’s storage capacity.

Lake Chesdin is hoping to expand, increasing capacity by 1.9 billion gallons, thanks in part to $5 million in funding in the state budget intended to help raise the height of the dam 18 inches. “Long-range, we have to look for additional opportunities for storage to ensure quality of life in Chesterfield and the region,” explains Wallin of the Chesterfield Planning Commission.

A new business sector
Supply-side solutions are being sought across the commonwealth.  “Having storage is a very important tool for weathering dry periods and drought,” notes Kudlas.

But it’s not the only tool.  A new and profitable business sector, including companies such as Marstel-Day and Sustainable Water, is helping Virginia businesses mitigate water risk.

One of these companies, Rainwater Management Solutions in Salem, can’t hire workers fast enough to match demand.  The company designs and manufactures rainwater harvesting systems, which collect, filter and store rainwater for on-site use.  “We’re continuing to grow, every year,” says company President David Crawford.  “And a lot of that’s in Virginia — Virginia Beach, Fairfax.  We’re too busy.  It’s a good problem to have.” 

Virginia’s new normal should attract more entrepreneurs like Crawford. “There are going to be more issues in our future,” Tech’s Schoenholtz says.  “We have to consider alternative methods: smart growth, green growth and new technologies in industry.”

While not inspiring a sea change, Chesterfield County’s recent deprivations are expected to show in ongoing revisions to its subdivision ordinance, says Wallin, the Planning Commission vice chairman.  Expected changes include support for water conservation best management practices, ranging from appropriate vegetation (more drought-tolerant species) to stormwater management options. 

Thanks to winter rains, the ARWA was able to lift water restrictions on county residents in January.  But for how long?  “Regarding next summer, a lot depends on how much rain we get,” says Wallin.

How much rain?  That’s the question on everyone’s lips.  At least everyone in the business of water.  For the average Virginian, a week without rain still means “good weather,” but that’s changing.

“Everybody should consider what if, for two weeks, you had to do without water.  Are you prepared for that?” asks Crawford of Rainwater Management Solutions.  “What if you turned that faucet and nothing came out?”

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