James City County is known for its water: Historic sites line the edge of the James River, while boats and swimmers dominate the water during the warm months.
There is water everywhere, but not enough to fill the county’s future needs.
For several years, James City County has been searching for alternatives to drawing groundwater from the dwindling Potomac Aquifer. Options include a desalination plant along the Chickahominy River, a process to inject treated wastewater back into the aquifer, buying water from Newport News and purchasing a pond in the upper county.
The timeline for one of those decisions may be looming.
Restoration Systems LLC and the Chesapeake Bay Nutrient Land Trust — the owners of Cranston’s Mill Pond in James City County — are chipping away at negotiations with the Department of Environmental Quality for a water withdrawal permit.
“We’ve been chasing it for almost three years,” said Restorations Systems Vice President Jeff Corbin.
While the permit has not been awarded, and there isn’t a specific timeframe, that day could be coming, allowing the pond to become a viable source of drinking water if proper infrastructure is built.
And if and when the permit does come, Cranston’s Mill Pond aims to identify a buyer — stat.
Corbin said James City County will be given first preference when it comes to buying Cranston’s Mill Pond as a water source.
The county is not the only possible buyer for the water, he added. Potential buyers could also be the WestRock paper mill in West Point, Newport News or other localities.
James City County has been working for more than a decade to identify and secure alternative sources of drinking water.
While the level of the Potomac Aquifer has been declining for some time, the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality in 2014 suggested it would cut the groundwater withdrawal permits for Hampton Roads’ 14-largest water withdrawers — including Colonial Williamsburg and James City County.
RELATED STORY: James City County’s Water Costs Face Uncertain Future
At the time, the DEQ indicated it could cut it from the permit’s 8.8 million gallons per day down as low as 3.8 million gallons per day. The county currently uses about 5.4 million gallons per day, but that is anticipated to increase over time.
James City County was able to secure a stopgap permit to withdraw up to 8.4 million gallons of water per day until 2027, but the DEQ has said it will cut the withdrawal amount again.
Corbin said discussions began some four years ago about Cranston’s Mill Pond as a potential answer to James City County’s drinking water problems. More than 8 million gallons pour over the pond’s dam and spillway every day into Yarmouth Creek.
“The number we’ve been shooting for to reliably get the county is in the 6 to 7 million-gallon range 70 to 75 to 80 percent of the time,” Corbin said.
During a Board of Directors meeting May 21, supervisors asked James City Service Authority General Manager Doug Powell to research how much it may cost to install infrastructure if the county were to buy the pond.
A purchase price for the pond has not been released.
Restoration Systems began chasing a water withdrawal permit from the DEQ about three years ago.
The permit has taken longer than some other water withdrawal permits, such as the one for the Chickahominy River desalination plant, but that’s because the DEQ has been hesitant to issue a permit without a particular user identified.
“My intention has been to talk to people after getting the permit,” Corbin said.
Without a user listed on the permit, Corbin worries the DEQ could put some usage restrictions on the permit.
Corbin said Restoration Systems has already struck a deal with the DEQ that they will not withdraw any water until an end user has been identified.
It is not yet determined how many million gallons per day the permit would allow the user to withdraw.
Here’s the science
Throughout the permitting process, both the state and Restorations Systems have requested the Virginia Institute of Marine Science take a look at potential impacts withdrawing water could have on the surrounding ecosystems.
“When I started this project, the first thing I did was say ‘Okay, I’ll help, but if there’s an impact downstream and it’s a big enough impact, I can’t stomach it,’” Corbin said. “I give the DEQ credit. They need to be thinking about making sure they adequately protect the water source as a whole.”
VIMS is the designated scientific advisory agency for any matter concerning the Chesapeake Bay and its waters in Virginia, said Lyle Varnell, associate director for Advisory Services at VIMS.
In that role, both state agencies and private companies can request VIMS conduct research for various projects. VIMS does not promote projects, simply provides research.
For Cranston’s Mill Pond, VIMS researchers did hydrodynamic and water quality modeling to see whether withdrawing millions of gallons of water per day would negatively impact plants and fisheries below the spillway.
In short, Varnell said withdrawing water in high amounts under extreme circumstances likely won’t carry a large impact.
“We found that there would be no real ecological consequences from that,” Varnell said. “… It’s a normal process for us to look at the most extreme scenarios because that’s where [the impact] is going to be worse.”
Varnell said VIMS also conducted research for the desalination plant along the Chickahominy River, which received a water withdrawal permit for nearly 17 million gallons per day in 2017.
“We try to get the right science into the right hands, that’s what we try to do,” Varnell said.