October 02, 2002 News & Features » Cover Story


Drop by drop 

The long, dry summer is over. But what about the drought?

The lack of preparation started at the top. For years, conservationists have been calling for state government to assume responsibility for protecting and allocating water resources. Government oversight has never been a pressing issue in Virginia, where there has been enough fresh water for residents and industry. But there have been signs that the state's population surge has started to strain resources.

In the 1990s, Virginia Beach maintained its suburban growth by building a 76-mile pipeline that can withdraw up to 60 million gallons daily from the Roanoke River. There was no state policy guiding the Lake Gaston pipeline. Virginia Beach could grab the water because it had the political clout to cut a deal with the state of North Carolina.

Politicians ignored calls for state planning because it ultimately would mean divvying up limited resources. As long as there seemed to be enough water to go around, no politician wanted to make tough choices that would result in some areas becoming haves and others have-nots. As a result, there has been study after study (including one commissioned by the 2002 General Assembly), but no action.

"What you find is that politicians in general don't think too long beyond their terms in office," says Don Wilhite, director of the National Drought Mitigation Center in Lincoln, Neb. "Politicians are reluctant to take on issues that have long-range consequences."

Some water policy advocates say the lack of foresight came home to roost this year.

"We are paying the price of years of neglect," says Patti Jackson, executive director of the James River Association, a conservation group. "Unless we start to take some pretty drastic steps for land use and water policy, we could be in a world of hurt this time next year."

Jackson would like to see Gov. Mark Warner declare the James River a water-management area to avoid a potential water war between Richmond and Lynchburg over the rights to the James River.

The Warner administration imposed mandatory water restrictions for most of the state to deal with the immediate problem, but has indicated that it will wait until the General Assembly completes its study before deciding whether further action is warranted.

"We do need to begin the planning now," agrees David K. Paylor, who is Warner's drought coordinator. "When this drought lets up, there will be another one coming down the road."

As localities scramble for additional water supplies, new users are lining up to gulp more water from the James River. Last month, a Nebraska company broke ground on the first of two giant electric power plants upstream from Richmond. The two plants, the first in Fluvanna and the second in Buckingham County, will be permitted to withdraw nearly 100 million gallons a day — nearly as much as the capital region now uses.

Anyone who has walked to Belle Island recently has witnessed the frightening drop in in the James. It's as if the smooth boulders have risen to form a rock garden.

The drought did not happen overnight. In 1999, Virginia experienced a serious shortfall in precipitation, and hotter-than-normal summers have meant the groundwater has not had a chance to replenish. Things reached a breaking point in August, when more than 2,400 wells failed across the state. In the town of Orange, the Rivanna River is so low that drinking fountains have been shut off and each resident is restricted to one three-minute shower a day.

So far, Richmond has been spared the worst. The James River, augmented by water released from a reservoir in the Allegheny Mountains, has maintained a sufficient level to allow the city to withdraw more than 100 million gallons per day.

Richmond's water supply next summer depends on heavy winter rains to refill Lake Moomaw, a 2,300-acre impoundment on the Jackson River near the West Virginia line. During August, experts said, water released this summer from Lake Moomaw accounted for about 40 percent of the James River water that reached Richmond.

Even with that extra flow, U.S. Geological Survey gauges upstream from Richmond recorded the all-time-low flow in the 20 years since Lake Moomaw has propped up the James River during the summer.

In most years since 1982, the USGS gauge at Scottsville reported flows of at least 977 cubic feet per second each day throughout August. This year, preliminary readings show they fell below the 977-cubic-foot-per-second level on 23 of 31 days.

The lack of state coordination of the James River resources cedes power to municipal waterworks, which tend to view water as a commodity to be sold more than a resource to be conserved.

In Richmond, the city imposed restrictions in mid-August, not because the James was tapped out but because demand threatened to overwhelm the capacity of the treatment plant, which can provide up to 126 million gallons a day to customers in Richmond and the counties of Chesterfield, Henrico and Hanover.

City officials were hoping for a 10-percent reduction in consumption. But stronger restrictions imposed by Warner (particularly a ban on watering lawns) and a break in hot weather yielded remarkable results — usage fell by nearly one-third, to about 82 million gallons a day.

Instead of celebrating, city officials are wringing their hands over lost utilities sales. "A drought puts utilities in a very conflicted situation," Wilhite says. "The bottom line is that they sell water, so imposing water conservation costs them revenue."

The dramatic falloff in consumption is a hopeful sign that people are taking water less for granted these days. Authorities credit the ban on lawn irrigation as the biggest factor. But many people have conserved in small ways like taking shorter showers or turning off the faucet when they brush their teeth. A few have gotten creative.

Mike Swain doesn't have to worry about the even-odd day system for watering the plants and shrubs in his South Richmond yard. Swain irrigates any day he likes, because the water does not come from a hose. He rigged up a plastic pipe to carry condensation from his home's air-conditioning unit to a 20-gallon trashcan, which never seems to be empty.

"It just surprised me how much water we got out of it — we average about four to five gallons a day," Swain says. "I don't believe in wasting anything, especially when I pay for it, or even when I'm not."

Despite the gains, there are signs that people have not come to terms with the new landscape. During the height of the drought, a grass-seed company displayed a billboard in Shockoe Bottom next to Poe's Pub that featured an image of children running across a preternaturally green lawn. Once a sign of prosperity and hard work, this suburban ideal took on darker meanings in August. People with brown grass spied neighbors' expanse of green as a sign of waste and selfishness. Chesterfield County has fielded more than 800 complaints about water violations, most of them dealing with people watering their lawns.

Karen Carter, an extension agent with Henrico County, says most people don't realize that it's perfectly acceptable for people to let their lawns go "dormant" during times of drought. Still, many people watered throughout the summer.

"I think this is the first summer that we have been faced with the fact that lawns are not a priority on water usage," Carter says.

Still, the lawn-care and irrigation industries have found a way to keep sprinklers going despite Warner's ban on lawn watering. The industries obtained a ruling from the Warner administration for any lawn — not just new construction — that has been aerated or dethatched and then seeded.

"Yes, you can water your lawn!!!!" promises a half-page newspaper ad placed by 13 Richmond-area companies. The ad states that homeowners will be granted a 30-day waiver if their lawns receive "some type of mechanical disturbance (aerating, dethatching, etc)" — services that the companies are happy to provide.

The lawn-care industry has managed to turn the drought into a marketing opportunity.

Wilhite says it is not surprising that many people in Virginia, an area where ample water is taken for granted, would have a difficult time adjusting to less water.

"The fact is that they have so little experience with it, they end up being more vulnerable than people in drought-prone areas in the West, where restrictions are an everyday fact of life," he says.

Wilhite cautions that people are likely to grow complacent once it starts to rain. He calls this the "hydro-illogical cycle," a predictable pattern of awareness-concern-panic followed by apathy.

"Once it starts to rain," he says, "you very, very quickly forget the lessons you should have learned." S



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