RD158 - Report of the State Water Commission - 2014

Executive Summary:

The State Water Commission (the Commission) is a 15-member legislative body established by statute that is charged with (i) studying all aspects of water supply and allocation problems in the Commonwealth, (ii) coordinating the legislative recommendations of all state entities that have responsibilities with respect to water supply and allocation issues, and (iii) annually reporting its findings and recommendations to the General Assembly and the Governor. In 2013, the Commission met twice and devoted its time to reviewing the policies associated with the management of the Commonwealth's groundwater resources in Eastern Virginia and receiving testimony on the work of the State Water Plan Advisory Committee (the Advisory Committee) in assisting the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) in the development and implementation of the statewide water resources plan. At its first meeting, the Commission elected Delegate Thomas Wright as chairman and Senator Emmett Hanger as vice-chair.

A. Management of Ground Water Resources in Eastern Virginia

1. Nature and Scope of Problem

Amid reports of excessive withdrawals of ground water resulting in incidents of saltwater intrusion, collapsing aquifers, and land subsidence in Eastern Virginia, the Commission examined the Commonwealth's current policies to manage the resource. In response to this seemingly critical situation, the State Water Control Board had adopted regulations on June 17, 2013, expanding the current groundwater management area north from the Middle Peninsula/ Northern Neck region to certain localities in Northern Virginia. When an area is designated as part of a ground water management area, a permit is required for withdrawals greater than 300,000 gallons per month or 10,000 gallons per day. Withdrawals of less than 300,000 per month, which represent a significant percentage of total withdrawals, are not regulated. Mr. David Paylor, Director of the Department of Environmental Quality, outlined the nature and scope of ground water issues in Virginia's coastal plain. Located east of I-95 along the fall line, the coastal plain aquifers are a series of aquifers separated by consolidated nonpermeable layers. Many of the layers are formed from fluvial and marine sediments. The Potomac aquifer is the largest, most productive of these aquifers and on average has the best water quality. Over the last four years, DEQ, in conjunction with the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), has examined how the different layers interact and impact ground water flow. The recent discovery of an impact crater in the Chesapeake Bay has caused the agencies to rethink the way the computer models are being developed for analysis of the ground water system and how the system reacts to the installation of new wells. Mr. Paylor emphasized the complexity of trying to determine the impact of withdrawals on the affected aquifers.

He explained that concern for ground water arose in the 1950s. Beginning in the 1960s, the withdrawals from the coastal aquifer increased significantly and have remained at those levels. The original legislation to regulate ground water withdrawals in certain regions was enacted in 1973. Twenty years later, this law was updated with the passage of the Ground Water Management Act of 1992. Much of the revision in the 1992 Act was focused on ensuring that existing water withdrawal rights of current permit holders were protected by allowing the permittees to continue to withdraw up to their permitted capacity. However, at the end of the current 10-year permit, their permitted use would be based on their historic actual use.

Mr. Paylor noted several management issues that need to be addressed, including the continued decline in the primary aquifers, land subsidence, saltwater intrusion, and the pumping of primary aquifers in a manner that is not sustainable over the long term. Under a newly implemented ground water withdrawal model that, according to Mr. Paylor, more accurately reflects reality, there will be less water available for withdrawal.

Virginia is not alone in experiencing ground water problems. Other southern coastal states have implemented strategies to preserve their ground water resources. Maryland does not permit withdrawals for the purpose of irrigation. North Carolina has reduced all existing withdrawals from the Potomac Aquifer by 30 to 75 percent over 15 years, prohibited new withdrawals, and provided some financial assistance to withdrawers so that they may convert to other sources of water supply. Georgia and South Carolina have designated certain areas where no new withdrawals will be allowed and designated other areas where only incremental withdrawals are allowed. These states have also mandated the implementation of conservation measures to reduce the existing maximum withdrawals. Florida has instituted regional caps on the amount of ground water allowed to be withdrawn and mandated conservation and efficiency measures and the metering of all withdrawals, including agriculture-related withdrawals.

Mr. Paylor emphasized that the region's aquifers "are not on the precipice of collapse." There still is time to develop strategies to stabilize the situation, and various options that may be available to preserve the resource must be evaluated. He indicated that solutions will depend on not one but a combination of options. He noted that after examining Virginia's program, a peer review panel recommended several regulatory and programmatic options. The regulatory options include:

• Reducing pumping;

• Spreading out pumping and finding different locations for the wells, thereby reducing pressure on the system without reducing the yield;

• Modifying management goals;

• Instituting zoning of withdrawals by ensuring permits in regional or aquifer groupings; and

• Implementing water conservation measures.

From a programmatic perspective, the panel recommended (i) the collection of more data on water levels, water quality, and land subsidence and (ii) an increase in program resources.

The Department of Environmental Quality is also exploring several short-term actions for managing ground water aquifers. The agency is examining the feasibility of having some permit holders move their wells to a higher level in the Potomac Aquifer. This policy may slightly reduce yield but would reduce the threat of saltwater intrusion. In order to develop a more accurate model, the agency needs a more complete set of data. Currently, DEQ is not receiving withdrawal information from a significant number of wells that operate below the withdrawal limit of 300,000 gallons per month. Although these wells are required to submit data on their levels of withdrawal, the reporting has been sporadic. In addition, the agency will (i) continue to increase ground water quality samples to 50 per year and (ii) work with the Virginia Economic Development Partnership and local governments to determine the availability of ground water for potential site locations.

Mr. Paylor is reviewing the program to ensure that adequate resources exist to carry out an effective management program and fully implement these actions. The review includes consideration of various options, including:

• Examining ways to spread out withdrawals, thereby reducing stress on the aquifers while maintaining significant yield;

• Evaluating drawdown criteria that protect against subsidence and saltwater intrusion;

• Promoting the greater use of alternatives such as water reuse, conjunctive use of surface and ground water, and water recycling;

• Considering additional regulatory change; and

• Over the next five to 10 years, seeking to develop plans that move the agency in a direction to ensure the preservation of the water resource for the long term.

Mr. Mark Bennett, the Director of the Virginia/West Virginia Water Science Center, USGS, discussed the USGS-DEQ Cooperative Program in the Coastal Plain. The two agencies conduct joint operations in such areas as water-level monitoring, borehole geophysical loggings, development of a hydrogeological framework in Eastern Virginia, participation in a salinity network, and ground water monitoring. Over the last 100 years, much effort has been made to understand the complexity of the ground water system. A significant step forward in that understanding was the discovery of the Chesapeake Bay Crater and the subsequent analysis of the system of aquifers. Mr. Bennett commented on the dynamics of the changes that are occurring in Virginia's aquifers. For instance, figures from 2008 show a significant reduction in aquifer storage and an accompanying increase in the incidence of saltwater intrusions. He noted that aquifer compaction is a major factor in land subsidence and that subsidence in tum is a major contributor to sea-level rise in Virginia's Coastal Plain.

See full report for the remainder of the Executive Summary.