Area water protection comes under scrutiny
Lynton Land has a hard job on his hands ‑ convincing people to take action now on a problem that won’t be acute for maybe 100 years.
Land is a retired geologist and member of the Northumberland Association for Progressive Stewardship (NAPS). NAPS recently noted that the paper mill at West Point has filed an application with the State Water Control Board to renew its permit to withdraw water from the aquifer we all rely on for use in its operations. NAPS decided to try and have its request reduced by 10 percent, Land said Monday.
The mill uses an average of 18 million gallons a day from the aquifer compared to 4.4 million gallons a day drawn by everything and everybody else on the Middle Peninsula and Northern Neck. Land said its actual withdrawals are less than its 23 million gallon a day permit allows and the new permit should take that into account. The most the mill ever used between 1999 and 2011 was 20.6 million gallons a day, Land said.
“The request could be reduced by 15 percent with no effect on their operation, unless they plan to expand, which is unlikely,” he noted.
The problem is that since monitoring the aquifers began in 1967, they have been dropping by about four feet a year; 50 feet since the monitoring started. Even assuming no growth in water usage, that means they will fall below safe levels in about 100 years. While that is a long way off, once that level is reached, there is no way to fix it.
The aquifers are from 200 to 900 feet underground and are filled with water from above the fall lines of the several rivers, Land has pointed out. The rain that has made its way into the aquifers fell thousands of years ago and recharging them once they are depleted would take a similar amount of time, he said.
Although the aquifers may remain usable for that period, ever deeper wells will be needed to reach it and, as the water drops, more salt water gets into it.
There are other sources of water such as the rivers and, if built, reservoirs both of which rely on rain but if river water were more heavily used, its availability would be decreased. While reservoirs would create inland waterfront property and recreational opportunities as well as a source of income for localities who have them when the aquifers fall, Land said there has been no apparent interest in building them in this area.
Land notes that holding the paper mill to its current level of use will not cure the problem but will help keep it from being worse. It would also “send a message that something must be done,” Land said.
Some area jurisdictions are already addressing the problem. In September, Middlesex County adopted a resolution seeking to have the West Point and Franklin paper mills reduce their use of aquifer water. NAPS has sent a similar resolution to the Northumberland County Board of Supervisors for consideration, Land said.
Before the mill’s permit request is acted upon, the water control board will allow public comments and have hearings, Land said, but none have yet been announced.
The water control board is part of the Department of Environmental Quality and can be looked up at: http://www.deq.virginia.gov/LawsRegulations/CitizenBoards.aspx#SWCB.