April 28, 2009

Water, Water, Everywhere?


Not yet, but our drinking water (and irrigation water) are NOT an unlimited resource. Most of our local water comes from the Chickahominey-Piney Point and Potomac aquifers, underground sources that are slowly dropping as we draw from them like there's no end to their water. Williamsburg folks also depend on Waller Mill Reservoir and another aquifer. Both local governments buy their water from Newport News Waterworks. New contracts guarantee water for 50 years.

Desalination plants (such as the 5 million gallons/day facility at Five Points Groundwater Treatment which came online in 2005) can only help to a degree--since the water that's returned to the James River is higher in salinity. James City Service Authority manages the county’s central water system as well as seven independent community water systems.

But what about the water from the proposed King William Reservoir? After a twenty year battle, the United States District Court for the District of Columbia agreed in April, 2009 with the Chesapeake Bay Foundations's opposition to the King William reservoir project by saying "no" to the US Army Corps of Engineers' decision to issue a permit for construction.

Construction of the proposed 13 billion gallon reservoir would destroy 437 acres of wetlands, flood more than 1500 acres of pristine wetlands (largest permitted wetlands destruction in mid-Atlantic area), flood 21 miles of streams, inundate Native American cultural sites, draw water from the Mattaponi River, and threaten the restoration of the American shad.

Here's the history from the Chesapeake Bay Foundation (CBF): In the late 1980s, the City of Newport News proposed to construct a new regional reservoir, citing alleged water needs. The lead federal permit agency, the US Army Corps of Engineers, rejected the original proposal and recommended permit denial. The Corps' original conclusion was that there were unacceptable environmental and cultural impacts as well as less damaging alternatives available. The Corps then reversed itself and issued the permit.

CBF and its partners (the Southern Environmental Law Center, the Alliance to Save the Mattaponi, the Virginia Chapter of the Sierra Club, and the Mattaponi Tribe) argued that the US Army Corps' decision to reverse itself and issue the permit to construct the reservoir and flood hundreds of acres of wetlands was "arbitrary and capricious." Citing requirements in the Clean Water Act, the U.S. District Court agreed. The Court said that the Corps had failed to establish that the reservoir was the least damaging alternative. It also said that the Corps had failed to show that the reservoir project would not cause substantial degradation to water quality--also a Clean Water Act requirement. Finally, the Court concluded that EPA also had acted in an "arbitrary and capricious" way in failing to follow the governing requirements of the Clean Water Act for EPA review of a Corps' decision.

For years, CBF and its partners have argued that there are other alternatives available, from conservation to smaller reservoirs; that Newport News had never legitimately established the need for the amount of water the huge reservoir would provide; and that the plan to mitigate the wetland destruction failed to compensate for the degraded and destroyed acres and functions of the wetlands.

The projected cost of this project was headed to $290 million by the time it came online in 2020. $50 million has already been spent, much of that for court costs to defend it.

5-1-09 update: The Army Corps of Engineers indefinitely suspended the project's federal permit. The public needs to look at water conservation efforts more closely. Water use has been declining throughout the Peninsula for the last few years as more users water their lawns less frequently and realize that fixing small leaks can also help their wallets.


1) Reduce the turf area around your home with more mulched beds and plants that tolerate dry conditions. Find suggested plants fromthe John Clayton Chapter of the Virginia Native Plant Society and the Master Gardeners' website.

2) Follow the watering restrictions in your community. They are NOT merely a suggestion.

The James City Service Authority website states that a violation of their watering ordinance is a Class I Misdemeanor, punishable by a fine of up to $2,500. "Violators who have been reported will be issued one warning in the form of a door hanger either given directly to the resident or left on the front door of the house or business. If a second violation is reported, the County Police will investigate and a summons may be issued." Don't tempt your neighbors to report you to JCSA at 229-7421!

3) Follow the hints at http://wateruseitwisely.com/100-ways-to-conserve/index.php .
The three tiers of water pricing could bring you to tears when your water bill arrives. The first 15,000 gallons is $2.85/thousand gallons; next 15,000 gallons are $3.45/thousand gallons. After 30,000 gallons, the price jumps to $9.80/thousand gallons. THAT should get your attention!