Experts discuss using Toano pond for water supply, project moves forward

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8 million gallons of water flows over the spillway on an average day. The stream that carries water to the Yarmouth Creek is in the foreground. (Andrew Harris/WYDaily)

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Two Virginia businessmen think they have found a way to solve the potential water crisis facing James City County -- and are preparing to take that solution to state government. 

Brent Fults of Chesapeake Bay Nutrient Land Trust, LLC., and Jeff Corbin of Restorations Systems, LLC., jointly own Cranston's Mill Pond in Toano and believe that the body of water holds the key to easing the strain on James City County’s supply of potable water

The county currently draws 5.4 million gallons per day from underground aquifers, but the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality (VDEQ) has indicated that it may cut that amount to below four million gallons daily.

The roughly 55-acre pond is equipped with a spillway that allows excess water to escape into a stream. Cranston Mill Pond, LLC is proposing to collect this excess to help supply the county with potable water.

As the owners of Cranston's Mill Pond prepare to submit their Joint Permit Application to the VDEQ and Virginia Marine Resources Commission this week, they have spent the last few weeks receiving public and professional feedback on their proposal.

Fults and Corbin made their application public and held a meeting in November to field community concerns. They have also responded to questions from unaffiliated experts in the field.

While William & Mary professor and hydrologist Gregory Hancock made it clear he was not familiar with the proposal, he said that finding new sources of water is an important issue for the county. He also warned that, generally speaking, the amount of water collected could have an impact on the environment downstream.

Water that escapes Cranston's Mill Pond flows into Yarmouth Creek and then the Chickahominy and James Rivers, respectively.

“What fraction of the water going down the stream will be taken out?” asked Hancock. “You can’t take out a substantial amount of flow without having an impact.”

Corbin said that he believes the eight million gallons per day that flows by the spillway on average is insignificant compared to the amount of water moved in and out of the downstream bodies of water by tidal forces.

“The benefit to this location is that downstream is tidally influenced,” said Corbin. “We’re not talking about building a 30-foot wall and taking every drop. It’s pretty unique because we’re not the primary source of water for the [downstream] ecosystem.”

He added that after periods of heavy rain, far more water will flow by the spillway and reach the Yarmouth than will be collected, and it will be up to the VDEQ to determine how much water will be collected from the pond.

Randy Chambers, Director of the Keck Environmental Lab at William & Mary, said that “the project seems to have been well-considered and vetted by those in the know,” but after looking at the proposal he had a few questions of his own.

“Lots of water treatment would be necessary,” said Chambers in an email. “The pond is small and shallow and thus lots of opportunity for sediment suspension and algal growth in the water column—that stuff would need to be filtered out and the water chemically treated for drinking.”

Corbin acknowledged that the pond water would need treatment and said there are several options for treatment, including constructing a small treatment center on the Cranston's Mill Pond property.

He also said that treating the pond’s fresh water would be much less expensive than treating salt water from the Chickahominy River, which has been considered by the county.

“I’m a little concerned that during the months of June-Oct, water spilling over the [spillway] was on average about 4 MGD [million gallons per day], which is pretty small,” said Chambers via email in reference to data in the application. “Yes, greater flows in other seasons and occasionally during short bursts after storms, but the regular withdrawal of water based on an average over the year might overstate availability day-to-day” during months with lower precipitation.

The Joint Permit Application indicates that drawing less water from the pond during the summer months should be considered, and would be feasible in conjunction with other sources of water- including the aquifer that the county currently pulls from.

“We’ve never proposed being the sole source of water for James City County,” said Corbin. “What we are proposing to VDEQ is a conjunctive use. You’d use all you could from the surface water.  All those days you’re not pulling from those wells, you’re not draining the aquifer. The conjunctive use of two sources allows you to maximize groundwater without any impacts.”

“We think what we have here and what DEQ will allow them to continue to pull from wells will provide 40 to 50 years of water at considerable cost savings,” said Corbin.