Amidst Abundant Rain, Eastern Virginia Still Faces Water Shortages

Virginia's coastal plain aquifer system
Virginia’s coastal plain aquifer system

by James A. Bacon

After getting soaked with rain over the past two weeks, most Virginians would find it difficult to imagine that the Old Dominion could ever face a water shortage. But the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission (JLARC) has been thinking beyond next week’s weather forecast, and while there are no immediate threats to the viability of Virginia’s water supply, the commission say that the long-term outlook in eastern Virginia is problematic.

The eastern, most populated portion of Virginia is heavily dependent upon a coastal plain aquifer system. Due to flat terrain and the omnipresence of wetlands, eastern Virginia is not topographically well suited to building water reservoirs. As a consequence, many water consumers rely upon well water.

At present small users (withdrawing less than 300,000 gallons per month) suck about 40 million gallons per day out of the aquifer system. Big users requiring permits are expected to withdraw between 43 and 58 million gallons per day. States JLARC in a new report, “Effectiveness of Virginia’s Water Resource Planning and Management“:

Assuming [the Department of Environmental Quality] achieves the proposed permit reductions it is currently negotiating and current reported withdrawals continue unchanged over the next few years, water levels are predicted to show only small declines and fall below regulatory minimum levels in only a few parts of the aquifer over 50 years. … Beyond the next few years, though, sustainability is tenuous and can be easily tipped out of balance. Potential growth in  both unpermitted and permitted withdrawals can easily push demand in excess of supply, leading again to unsustainable use.

While water shortages are unlikely in the next generation, the necessity to curtail major new water users is hampering economic development now. Difficulty in acquiring new permits will make it challenging for water-intensive industries to locate in eastern Virginia, states the report.

“About 85 percent of local economic developers responding to a JLARC survey reported that availability and affordability of water were important factors for at least one new project during the past three years,” the report says. Survey respondents told JLARC of three incidents in which projects did not materialize due to water permitting issues.

So, what’s to be done? Broadly speaking, JLARC identifies three strategies relevant to eastern Virginia: (1) conservation, (2) repair of leaky infrastructure, and (3) trading water.

Conservation. Conservation by existing users can postpone the need to spend billions of dollars developing new water supplies. Conservation measures can include installation of water-efficient appliances and fixtures, water-efficient landscaping and limits on landscape irrigation, rain harvesting, and tiered pricing structures that escalate charges for big users. Two paper mills — WestRock in West Point and International Paper in Franklin — account for nearly half of all coastal plain aquifer withdrawals. If the mills could find ways to cut water consumption, they could prolong the sustainability of the aquifer by many years.

Fixing water leaks. Local water supply plans report system losses ranging from 4% to 50%, depending upon the age of the infrastructure. JLARC cites two major public water suppliers in eastern Virginia which lost 15% and 17% of their water supply to leaks in 2011. Thanks to new technologies for monitoring water pipes, it is easier to identify leaks than ever. Water authorities across Virginia should be able to prioritize their maintenance spending to patch or replace the pipes with the worst leaks, deferring the need to spend billions of dollars on new capacity.

Groundwater trading. Groundwater trading is a market-based approach in which users buy and sell rights to groundwater consumption. Trading water rights would promote more efficient allocation of the scarce resource and would accommodate economic growth by allowing new users to access groundwater. However, there are prickly legal and philosophical issues associated with what amounts to converting a public resource into private property.

Unless Virginia can cobble together some combination of these solutions, we can expect water rates to rise in eastern Virginia as municipal and regional water authorities seek to ensure their long-term supplies. The Hampton Roads Sanitation District (HRSD), for instance, has begun studying an “aquifer injection” project that would inject about 120 million gallons per day of treated wastewater in the coastal aquifer, more than offsetting all current withdrawals. Among the benefits: reducing land subsidence that contributes to local flooding and reversing saltwater intrusion into the aquifer. However, the estimated price tag is hefty: about $1.2 billion in up-front capital and between $21 million to $43 milllion in annual operating costs.

JLARC urges legislators to tighten up standards for withdrawing water from the coastal aquifer, and capping the withdrawals that any single entity can make. Whatever the solution relied upon, Virginia needs to implement it soon. While water shortages may be decades away, the looming scarcity is affecting Virginia’s economic competitiveness today.


  1. Larrytheg

    re: ” So, what’s to be done? Broadly speaking, JLARC identifies three strategies relevant to eastern Virginia: (1) conservation, (2) repair of leaky infrastructure, and (3) trading water.”

    surprised they did not address contamination of the aquifers.. which ought to be a real concern with things like gasoline and other fuels leaking, existing superfund sites as well as the coal ash sites:

    ” Groundwater Contaminated with Hexavalent Chromium”

    Virginia should be not only monitoring the acquirers for quantity – and saltwater intrusion – but contamination including current known contamination and known potential threats.

    In other words – generate maps that detail current known conditions.

    beyond that – west of I-95 – there are both quantify and quality issues of a more natural reason – like sparse flows even at 600 feet as well as things like sulfur and other natural contaminates.

    “Editorial: Drilling into Stafford’s well-water problem”

  2. Acbar

    1. JLARC mentions, as you put it, that “Two paper mills — WestRock in West Point and International Paper in Franklin — account for nearly half of all coastal plain aquifer withdrawals.” This is a huge amount of water. Industrial withdrawals of water that should be preserved for domestic and agricultural use (and the latter only sparingly!). Now, I am NOT advocating forcing these plants to shut down; indeed they have not abused the water supply by the standards applicable when they were built. However, that price tag for ‘aquifer injection’ — $1.2 billion up front plus $21-$43 million annually — puts an alternative cost estimate out there that says to me, the State could spend half that amount in taxpayer funds to refurbish these plants to use recaptured/recycled water, retain them as employers located just where they are, and we’d still come out ahead.

    2. I have a home in Mathews County where the aquifer situation is spectacularly worse, due to geology that was not understood until quite recently (1994). These discoveries were made while exploring the coastal substructure for possible oil and gas. Here is a map of the lower Chesapeake Bay showing the location of the impact crater from a very large meteor which struck Virginia some 35 million years ago:
    And here is a side view of an east-west slice through the crater:
    As you can see, over the past 35 million years the crater became completely covered over by subsequent layers of sand/mud/clay and there is water available from shallow wells drilled into those later sediments (if the wells do not go down into the crater itself). But the crushed rock that fills the crater is still settling and compacting, so that the land above is faulted and slumps down within the crater walls. The sediments near the surface are already slightly salty from Bay and sea water that has penetrated the many faults, and shallow wells into these sediments are easily polluted. Underneath, within the crater, the crushed rock or “breccia” is saturated with super-salty brine and undrinkable. Thus, Mathews County, and parts of Gloucester and York and Accomack Counties, have this special reason to be protective of their scarce drinking water resources and specially mindful of the Coastal Plain’s overall limitations.

    1. baconius

      Who knew that the geology of the Tidewater was so complex? I’ve been following Virginia public policy for 40 years, but this information about the coastal plain aquifer comes as a revelation to me.

      Your idea about the paper mills is a good one. It seems unreasonable to punish them — although, I would guess that DEQ’s “negotiations” with unnamed parties probably involve those two mills. But surely there are ways for them to recycle large quantities of water, and surely it would be cheaper for them to do that than, as you say, spend $1.2 billion injecting water back into the aquifer. The trick is, the state doesn’t have tens or hundreds of millions of dollars of cash laying around to cover the cost.

      1. Larrytheg

        actually the aquifers are not simple in a lot of places. For instance in western Va is karst and in other places like Stafford – water is scarce in some places even at 600 feet.

        the quality of the water is not “pure” either… it has natural “contaminates” in it like sulfur, heavy metals and even radon.

        We have home-buyers in our area who are unhappy with the county and the developers for selling them land that does not have acceptable water on it and thus affects the value of the property.

        residential wells in Va are primarily the responsibility of the property owners…

        Va Tech has a Master Well Owners Network
        of which I have taken their course and become more
        knowledgeable which has informed me of how little the State or Counties are actually involved other than permitting the initial drilling of the well. After that – you’re pretty much totally on your own …

        What Virginia probably needs is a comprehensive mapping of all of it’s ground water and the status of it…. that alone – would help a lot of people be better informed about decisions.