Chris Dawson spent much of this past fall with his fingers crossed, hoping for rain to help break the drought.
"I've become very water conscious," says Dawson, Appomattox River Water Authority's executive director.
The authority is a nonprofit collective with representatives from localities that it sells water to: the cities of Colonial Heights and Petersburg and the counties of Chesterfield, Dinwiddie and Prince George. Chesterfield is the authority's largest user. The county's contract allows up to 66.5 million gallons per day.
Along with the authority, Chesterfield gets water from the city of Richmond and Swift Creek Reservoir, which it owns. "We're in a favorable situation," says Chesterfield utilities director Roy Covington. "We have water coming from three different directions."
Chesterfield's contract with Richmond, which gets its water supply from the James River, allows the county to receive up to 27 million gallons of water a day. The Addison-Evans water production facility at Swift Creek Reservoir has a total capacity of 12 million gallons per day. "That all adds up to a total capacity of 106 million gallons a day," Covington says. "Our average per-day flow for fiscal year 2006 was 36.2 million gallons per day."
In order to meet future requirements, county supervisors approved a comprehensive water-supply plan in the fall of 2007. "We chose to work on this plan with the other municipalities in the Appomattox River Water Authority because we get 45 to 50 percent of our daily supply from that source," Covington says.
The county is also negotiating with Richmond for additional supplies. "We are definitely looking to Appomattox to address our future needs but that doesn't discount other sources we might explore if and when they become available," Covington says.
Even though it has three water sources, Chesterfield can still suffer drought conditions. When prolonged dry spells occur like they did this past fall, the county turns to its formal drought management plan. The county code now includes specific criteria for voluntary, mandatory and emergency water restrictions. The plan follows restriction recommendations from the city if the James River reaches low flow and also from the water authority. Either can ask the county to initiate water restrictions.
This past October, the authority had to ask its customers to begin mandatory water restrictions. "We've only had to ask for mandatory restrictions twice that I am aware of, in 2002 and 2007," Dawson says.
The authority's policy in dealing with drought conditions is to call for voluntary restrictions when the water level in Lake Chesdin drops to 18 inches below the top of the dam. "It's not unusual for the lake to drop to that point during the summertime," Dawson explains. "We call for mandatory restrictions when there are only 200 days of storage left in the reservoir based on current consumption."
Typically, the wet season begins September, but 2007 didn't follow that rule. "Looking at the long-range forecast into 2008, precipitation is expected to be below normal," Dawson says.
There was some controversy over the mandatory restrictions put into place in 2007 when it was disclosed that some homeowners living around Lake Chesdin were using pumps to get water for irrigation. The authority knew the pumps existed. "In 2002 we wrote letters to people asking them to stop using the pumps," Dawson says. When his staff investigated the problem, they found 85 pumps. But an estimate from a contractor who installed many of those pumps raises the number to around 150.
Dawson says 85 to 150 pumps create insignificant demand. But what happens when the shoreline is fully developed in the future? "There is a possibility that up to 5,000 new homes could be built in the area," Dawson says. "That would be a significant withdrawal."
Some residents had the pumps installed up to 20 years ago and say they did so with the authority's permission, but the only authority-issued permit for a private pump belongs to Chesdin Landing golf course.
On Dec. 20, a residential pump committee was scheduled to present options for the authority to vote on. The first includes cutting the pumps off right away and requiring residents to pay for their removal. The second would allow residents to continue using the pumps, with an option of paying either a flat-rate or meter-based fee (which would require footing the cost of meter installation).
Dawson worries that residents will waste money if the authority decides to allow continued use since he assumes the authority will one day ban residential pumps. "If you're not going to allow it to be used indefinitely, do you really want people to put more money in?" he asks.
Dawson estimates that the demand for water from Lake Chesdin will surpass capacity around the year 2020. He says one way to increase capacity is to build an off-stream storage reservoir above Lake Chesdin. "We're working on a permit for [a reservoir] where we can store water during the rainy season and put water back into the river during the dry season."
Because of Chesterfield's concern with protecting the water supply and maintaining Swift Creek Reservoir as a viable water source, the county works with the nonprofit community group Hands Across the Lake.
The group, formed in 1991, is worried new development will negatively affect the reservoir. "That's a big issue for us," says co-chair Tom Pakurar. "We are working with the county to develop ordinances that would limit the amount of pollution coming into the reservoir from new developments."
Mounting pollution created by new development coupled with the effects of global warming is a troubling scenario, Pakurar says. "The question is, what will all of that do to the sources of water available to Chesterfield?"
The county's goal, Covington says, is to balance the need to preserve water resources with the needs of its customers. He applauds county residents who pay heed to the county's requests to conserve water. "It really makes a difference," he says.