The state has reached agreements with 14 large users of groundwater in eastern Virginia that the Department of Environmental Quality says will protect coastal aquifers from depletion.
The 14 groundwater withdrawal permits that were brokered with municipal water utilities and large industrial users over the past five years, such as the WestRock paper mill in West Point, will cut total allowable withdrawals of water by 69 million gallons a day.
“By embracing practical, forward-looking solutions to reduce withdrawals, improve efficiency and develop alternative water supplies, we are laying the groundwork for sustained and sustainable success,” Gov. Terry McAuliffe said in a statement. “I appreciate the permittees’ willingness to work with my administration and the Department of Environmental Quality to reach these historic agreements.”
The governor said permits allowed the withdrawal of 146 million gallons a day when he took office. The new permits will cut allowable consumption by as much as 52 percent.
The DEQ has reviewed requests to withdraw large quantities of groundwater since 1992 in Virginia’s coastal plain, which runs roughly from the eastern edges of Fairfax and Prince William County due south through Richmond to Southampton County and encompasses all of Tidewater as well as the Eastern Shore. In those areas, which Virginia has designated as groundwater management areas, any person or entity that will withdraw more than 300,000 gallons a month must obtain a permit from the DEQ.
Permits are issued to industry, municipal water supplies, agriculture and large residential developments. “Over-pumping,” the governor’s office says, has led to significant groundwater declines, measured land subsidence and increasing saltwater intrusion.
“We are proactively addressing an intergenerational threat to our water supply,” said outgoing Secretary of Natural Resources Molly Ward, a former mayor of Hampton. “We are grateful for the spirit of collaboration that permeated this process and made this success possible.”
A 2014 report prepared for the DEQ said the agency was “concerned about declining aquifer levels in the coastal plain and the possibility that current and likely future withdrawals from the aquifers cannot be sustained.” The report said the area’s major aquifers, including the Potomac, Aquia, Yorktown-Eastover and Piney Point, are “confined aquifers, with a relatively low recharge from rainfall,” and noted that some had declined by as much as 200 feet in the decades since World War II.
The depletion of the aquifers could mean existing wells can no longer draw water and that new wells have to be drilled deeper. It could also mean permanent loss in groundwater storage capacity as dewatered soils settle; increased saltwater intrusion into freshwater aquifers; and sinking land.
From 1979 to 1995, the land in southeastern Virginia dropped 24.2 millimeters at Franklin, according to the report, and 50.2 millimeters at Suffolk from 1982 to 1995.
“More than half of the rate of sea level rise in southeastern Virginia is attributable to subsidence of all forms, with half of the total subsidence from groundwater pumping,” the report says. “Virginia has the highest rates of relative sea level rise on the Atlantic seaboard.”
Bill Hayden, a DEQ spokesman, said the landmark agreements, which encompass permits issued from January 2012 to this month, represent more than a decade of work.
“This is a very long-term issue. This is going to take years to resolve,” Hayden said. “There may need to be some adjustments. But this is a good start, and we’ll evaluate it as we go along to see if any other action needs to be taken.”