August 6, 2008

Lynchburg Taps James River for Water

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

Aug. 6--Increased demand and a lowering Pedlar Reservoir are why Lynchburg has started tapping the James River for water, weeks earlier than usual.

The city began drawing river water for 24 percent of its supply Monday. City Utilities Director Tim Mitchell said he expects half the water supply will come from the river by the end of this week.

"It's earlier than normal," Mitchell said. "Typically it's September or early October before we have to use (river water)."

As of Tuesday, Pedlar Reservoir was 141 inches below the spillway. If the level drops to 160 inches below the spillway, the city will pull almost all of its supply from the river, Mitchell said.

An unusually dry fall and winter kept Pedlar's levels well below the spillway until March, a time when it should be overflowing. It fell below the spillway again in early June, more than a month earlier than is typical.

The past few dry years also contribute to lower groundwater levels, which impact both Pedlar Reservoir and the James River. Some observation wells in the region are hitting record lows, according to U.S. Geological Survey data.

State and federal reports show much of the region to be in some form of drought. Rainfall at the Lynchburg Regional Airport is now 9.6 inches below normal, although spotty thunderstorms have brought more rain to some parts of the area.

A Department of Environmental Quality precipitation map shows a large swath of Campbell County south of Rustburg has seen close to normal precipitation since October 2007. Yet most areas north and west of that line have received significantly lower rainfall during the past year, the map shows.

Much of the rain that has fallen in the last few months has come from heavy thunderstorms. While that temporarily fills streams, once the runoff rushes downstream waterways return to low levels because a portion of the flow relies on groundwater.

That has been a problem with Pedlar Reservoir, Mitchell said.

The James River also is at an abnormally low level, but it still supplies enough water for the city's needs, Mitchell said. "The river flow is low but it's adequate," he said. "We don't have any issue there."

Until a few years ago, the city would draw the reservoir down to 210 inches below the spillway before tapping the river.

"But we stopped doing that because we want to preserve more water in the reservoir in case there's a situation where we have to switch over to the reservoir," Mitchell said.

The big concern would be a water quality issue in the James, such as an algae bloom or some type of contamination, Mitchell said. At 160 inches below the spillway, there's a 30-day water supply.

"If there was any problem with the James River, we'd be in OK shape," he said.

Normal city usage is about 11 million gallons per day, but currently the city supplies about 13.5 million gallons per day, which is at the limit of Pedlar's pipeline to the city treatment plants, Mitchell said. That figure includes customers in areas of Forest that rely on city water.

"Current demands are such that it's hard to keep up just using Pedlar and just getting water into the system," he said.


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