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James City County has secured a permit from the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality that city staff believe will provide the county with a source of drinking water for the next decade.
County Administrator Bryan Hill and James City Service Authority General Manager Doug Powell announced the permit at last week’s Board of Supervisors meeting.
The permit will allow the county to continue drawing water from an underground aquifer at a rate of six million gallons per day, according to Hill. The county’s previous permit allowed drawing up to 8.8 MGD, while the county averaged well under that limit at 5.4 MGD drawn from the aquifer.
The DEQ had previously informed the county that they intended to limit the amount of water JCC could draw from the aquifer– by as much as 57 percent.
Limiting the amount of water withdrawn can help preserve the long-term health of the aquifers, explained Greg Hancock, professor and hydrology expert at the College of William and Mary.
“The aquifer is partly held up by the pressure of the water,” Hancock said. “When you remove water from those pore spaces [where water is stored within the aquifer], the aquifer contracts vertically in response to that because you’ve lost the buoyancy of the water. If you take it to an extreme you can decrease those pore spaces so much that they will never expand again.”
Land subsidence, or sinking, can result from the overuse of an aquifer. In conjunction with rising sea levels, Hancock said land subsidence could make the region even more prone to flooding.
According to Hancock, the DEQ issues groundwater withdrawal permits in an effort to strike a balance between human need and protection of the aquifer’s future viability. While the aquifers naturally recharge over time, the DEQ intends to make sure municipalities do not draw from aquifers more quickly than their natural rate of recharging.
“The reason for the limit was to protect the use of the aquifer in the future. If we go too far, we lose the ability to use the aquifer again,” Hancock said.
Hancock referred to the permit as a “stopgap,” as the county will need to find an alternate source of water to complement their allowed groundwater withdrawal by the time the permit expires.
“From their [DEQ’s] perspective, they’re reducing our permit and they realized we are making a good faith effort to find an alternative to groundwater,” Powell said. “I think for us the big thing was we know we’re going to need an alternate source and this permit provides us a bridge to meet our demands for the next 10 years.”
While the permit limits the county to withdrawing 6 MGD from the aquifer, there are contingencies allowing the county to draw up to 8.4 MGD with permission from the DEQ, according to Scott Kudlas, Director of the Office of Water Supply with the DEQ. Kudlas said the contingency will allow for growth within the county within the next decade.
“We’re not in the business of trying to shut people down,” Kudlas said. “We look for reasonable accommodations in the permit that would allow for those kinds of activities to occur with the understanding that they’ll need to cover that growth with the sources they’re working on now. We are trying to meet the needs of the county while trying to preserve the Potomac Aquifer for the future. We think this permit does that. This permit recognizes that James City County is seriously investigating alternatives to aquifers.”
Kudlas added that he is confident the county’s investigation into alternate sources of water will yield a viable source. In conjunction with the county’s potential to reduce its current demand for water, he said the county’s search will result in the preservation of the aquifer.
Hill said he would rather not disclose which sources the county is currently exploring, but said his goal is to present options to the county’s Board of Supervisors within three years. In the meantime, he and county staff will continue to search for potential water sources as well as ways to conserve water.
“I think we worked very well with them and we understand where they want us to be,” Hill said, referring to the DEQ. “We’ll work with them on water conservation and finding an alternative water source…In a decade when this permit expires, we’ll have an alternate water source.”