July 27, 2008

Beyond the Tap – Part 1 of 3

By Sarah Watson, The News & Advance, Lynchburg, Va.

Jul. 27--Most of us take water for granted -- turn on the faucet and out it comes.

But beyond the tap, the picture is more complex.

We live in an area where we seemingly have a wealth of water -- lakes, rivers, reservoirs and groundwater. Yet, as the region's thirst grows and our resources are affected by increased demand and weather fluctuations, there are questions in some localities about whether that wealth will remain.

The summer of 2007 saw a significant drought with most localities statewide under some form of water restriction. Almost a year later, the town of Appomattox still remains under voluntary restrictions and other localities could see those steps reimposed later this summer.

Other areas of concern:

- Seven of the past 10 years in the Lynchburg area have ended with below-average precipitation. So far this year, rainfall at Lynchburg Regional Airport is about 8 inches below normal.

- Pedlar Reservoir, Lynchburg's primary water source, remained unusually low through much of winter, a time when it is normally overflowing. It reached full pond by mid-March, more than three months later than usual, and then fell back below the spillway by early June, at least a month earlier than normal.

- The James River is lower now than it was this time last year, according to the U.S. Geological Survey monitoring station at Holcomb Rock.

- Area well drillers say they routinely have to dig deeper for reliable water.

The ongoing dryness over the past several years comes as the Lynchburg area continues to grow, placing more demand on public water supplies as well as groundwater that provides well water to thousands of residents. While it is too early to know whether the precipitation deficit indicates a possible long-term climate shift, the state wants every locality in the Commonwealth to start planning for future water needs.

During the 2002 drought, streams and rivers were flowing at some of the lowest levels on record, some area reservoirs all but dried up and shallow wells in many counties failed. After that, the General Assembly mandated that every locality produce a water supply management plan for the next 30 to 50 years. A goal, legislators said, was to emphasize regional cooperation.

A draft of the Region 2000 plan, which includes Lynchburg and Amherst, Appomattox, Bedford, Campbell and Nelson counties, will be made public on Thursday.

It details current water use by each locality and projects future demands based on growth estimates, said Mike Lawless, environmental program manager with Draper Aden Associates, the engineering firm handling with the Region 2000 plan.

"We're in pretty good shape as far as water goes," Region 2000 deputy director Bob White said. "There are some areas that are going to need to address the need for added capacity sooner rather than later. But where we did find concerns, they were already identified and efforts under way to address those."

An early draft of the plan showed some counties could have a supply deficit in just a few decades.

Based on growth projections and current supplies, for example, Campbell County might not be able to meet its public water supply needs in about 40 years if it keeps selling water at its current pace, the draft said.

However, if the county were to stop selling water, there would still be a supply surplus in 2060. Future sales, such as those proposed to the town of Appomattox, were not calculated in the draft.

The calculation methods also did not include existing water purchase agreements. Bedford County, for instance, buys much of its water for Forest and the western fringes of the county from either Lynchburg or the Western Virginia Water Authority in Roanoke.

Based on the estimates, Bedford County can't supply enough water from its own sources right now, Lawless said.

The preliminary draft's information does not include recently announced plans from the county to withdraw up to 3 million gallons per day from Smith Mountain Lake, Lawless said.

The plan is only a first draft and is meant to be a working document, Lawless said. Once the groundwork is laid, calculating changes and different supply scenarios will be much easier, he said.

"In general, I think the region is fairly water-rich. We're not showing a huge deficit 15 years down the road where we all need to be scared," Lawless said. "The challenge, I think, is to use the resources we have in the most economical and efficient manners we have."

In Lynchburg, a more immediate concern is an aging infrastructure that will take much more money to fix.

For example, of the 250,000 linear feet of water pipe downtown, 100,000 feet is more than 100 years old and another 100,000 feet are more than 90 years old, city utilities director Tim Mitchell said. "That's a major issue because that's really pushing the edge of the useful life of those water lines," he said.

Infrastructure needs will be a key part of the region's water management report. It is expected to challenge localities to seek regional solutions and capitalize on the area's relative water wealth, especially during prolonged dry spells.

That could mean looking at interconnecting existing water systems, or relying one large intake from a major water source instead of permitting numerous small stream intakes, Lawless said.

Water managers also may increasingly have to take into account changing precipitation patterns, too.

Virginia receives an average of about 40 inches of rain per year, much of that coming in moderate soaking rains during the late fall, winter and early spring. In the summer, most rainfall comes from thunderstorms and heavy showers.

While those seasonal soaking rains have fallen off over the past few years, the area has received a fair amount of rain recently in short bursts from spotty thunderstorms.

That sort of quick and heavy rain, though, is not as beneficial as a prolonged soaking one. The water rushes through rivers and streams, leaving them back at their low levels. The piedmont's hilly terrain accelerates the runoff because of steeper slopes.

The Pedlar River watershed has received several thunderstorms, but the rain only raises the reservoir temporarily, by a few inches, Mitchell said. A significant problem comes from low groundwater, which is a major source of the Pedlar River and reservoir.

"We never did recover from the rainfall deficit from last year; we haven't gotten significant snow to replenish the groundwater," Mitchell said. "As bad as it was last year, right now we're in a worse situation," because the water levels fell below the spillway more than a month earlier than usual.

Finding ways to capture heavy runoff to use during prolonged dry spells, which some climate researchers say will happen more frequently in the years ahead, is part of the challenge for water managers, Lawless said.

Such a system is partially in place on the James River, which begins as a series of mountain streams in Bath and Highland counties.

A major function of Lake Moomaw, a reservoir formed when the Jackson River was dammed, is to supplement the James River during dryer periods, Mitchell said. During the 2002 drought, releases provided 30 to 50 percent of the river's flow, Mitchell said.

"There could always be a situation where the flows in the river are at a critical low," he said. "But I think the chances are rare that we will see a problem with the James River for our capacity needs."

More info?

- The first draft of the Region 2000 water management plan will be unveiled Thursday during a public meeting from 4 to 6 p.m. at the Lynchburg Public Library, 2315 Memorial Ave.

- For more information, contact Bob White at (434) 845-3491 or


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