James City County searches for water, finds a fight

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JCC is considering the Chickahominy River as a potential water supply source for the county. (CDM Smith/JCC)
JCC is considering the Chickahominy River as a potential water supply source for the county. (CDM Smith/JCC)

As James City County looks to secure a sustainable water source, a reservoir that was never built is sucking it dry.

The ghost of King William Reservoir loomed large during a public meeting held Monday to address the county’s water needs. Currently, the county relies on the James City Service Authority to pump from underground aquifers about 5.4 million gallons of water per day for use in homes and businesses.

In response to concerns about the long-term stability of the aquifers, the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality recently declared JCSA must the cut amount of water it removes from the ground by more than half, by 57 percent to be exact. To secure a source of water beyond the aquifers, the county will have look elsewhere — and doing so will force it to either invest in an uncertain future or confront a bitter past.

Monday’s meeting addressed a proposal for a future raw water intake and treatment plant on the Chickahominy River. The plant, according to JCSA General Manager Doug Powell, could treat 8 million gallons per day from the Chickahominy. This option, including infrastructure costs, is estimated to result in $121 million in new debt, but the county would be able to control water rates and system growth, Powell said.

While the plant proposal is still in its early stages, the idea of building a water desalinization facility on the Chickahominy sparked concern from local watermen about the environmental impact of the plant’s briny output into the river.

“It just worries me. What are you gonna do to a beautiful river?” Charles Brown, a resident of Charles City County, said during the meeting. “It could destroy something that we should be proud of and a little more interested in protecting.”

The alternative to building the plant would mean continuing a contract with Newport News that was designed as part of the planning stages for King William Reservoir, a project that — due to local protest and a federal ruling — was never completed.

In March 2008, James City County paid Newport News Waterworks $25 million for the right to purchase up to 4 million gallons of water per day through 2019, while it constructed a new water source, the King William Reservoir. The cost did not include the amount of money JCSA would have to spend to buy the water; it only covered the right to purchase it. The county will have to pay an additional $25 million to Newport News by June 30, 2019, if it wishes to extend its current contract.

According to the contract, the price for Newport News water has increased annually since 2009, and will continue to do so. The price was originally set at $0.70 per 1,000 gallons, which works out to $2,800 per day for all 4 million gallons.

“Here’s one of the problems I have, it’s what if we don’t do this?” Joseph Swamenburg, a resident of James City County, said of the proposed water processing plant. “Where do we get our water from now? We get it from Newport News Waterworks…I hate to say it, but this is probably a better proposal than that.”

Should the county decide not to extend its contract with Newport News, the city will cut the amount of water it can deliver to the county in half, to two million gallons per day. The county’s 2015 water demand held an average of 4.72 million gallons used per day, with a projected demand of 8.89 million gallons per day by 2050.

“The City worked together with James City County in the development of the Long Term Water Supply Agreement,” Scott Dewhirst, Interim Director, Newport News Waterworks wrote in a statement to WYDaily. “The terms sought to benefit both communities and were agreed to by all parties and approved by the respective governing bodies. The City stands ready to continue our cooperative relationship with the County and further discuss their future water needs.”

Kelly Place, a York County waterman and member of an all-volunteer group that actively opposed the King William Reservoir, attended the Board of Supervisors meeting on March 25, 2008, when the contract with Newport News was unanimously approved. He was also in attendance Monday.

“There is a lot at stake here,” Place said. “I, among many others, urged strongly against James City County signing that contract for a real plethora of reasons. All of our concerns, which Newport News cast as worst case scenarios that were unlikely to happen, unfortunately every single negative thing that we warned about has now manifested itself in reality.”

James City County Administrator Bryan Hill was in agreement that the contract did not benefit the county as promised and should be renegotiated.

“Newport News is starting to realize that James City County is not a tiny little sleepy town anymore,” Hill said. “We are coming to the table pretty strong.”

Click here to read the full contract between JCC and Newport News Waterworks.

Click here to read the JCSA’s Joint Permit Application for the desalinization project. Comments on the proposed project may be made during the comment period, which ends Aug. 8. All comments must be made to the JCSA and will be submitted with the Joint Permit Application.