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Artesian Water: An Update

By now, most people are aware that the artesian water used by about three-quarters of Northern Neck citizens is being withdrawn at an unsustainable rate. There exists a finite amount of potable water, and when it’s gone, it’s gone. Water levels are declining about one foot per year. Water quality in the Windmill Point area is marginal and saline intrusion from water deeper in the aquifer is eventually inevitable everywhere as potable water is removed. Unsustainable groundwater withdrawal is a global problem that many people choose to ignore despite the fact that the science is certain (like global warming).

In our case, the Northern Neck Planning District Commission concluded in 2010 that total ground water withdrawal in the Northern Neck, 4.4 Million Gallons per Day (MGD), is small compared to withdrawals from the Middle Peninsula (27 MGD – mostly because of the paper mill) and Southern Maryland (43 MGD – because it is much more highly developed).

A decade ago the Virginia Coastal Plain Groundwater Management Area extended from North Carolina only as far north as the York River. When the GMA was enlarged and the entire coastal plain included, the Department of Environmental Quality was forced to address the fact that the West Point paper mill uses 18 MGD, four times the amount of artesian water used by the entire Northern Neck. DEQ recently sought to phase in a withdrawal reduction as the mill’s permit, for 23 MGD, came up for renewal (it actually expired on 06/22/2012!). The threat of loss of profits and jobs by limiting water withdrawal raised the ire of the “Merchants of Doubt” (see review of the book Merchants of Doubt).

At the behest of a local politician, the 2015 General Assembly passed two bills (SB1341 & HB1924) that required postponement of proposed withdrawal reductions until advisory panels could report their findings to the State Water Commission and DEQ. A report is now available, and of course it changes nothing because the science is sound. It was merely a delaying tactic, one of the strategies in the playbook of the “Merchants” who seek to ensure that profits today trump all other considerations, such as running out of water in the future.

I responded to a request for public input from the DEQ Office of Water Supply that the new ten-year permit “should begin at the current average withdrawal rate of 18 MGD, and should be lowered at least 1 MGD every two years.” That suggestion was not acceptable to DEQ. They propose that the withdrawal be 20 MGD for 3 years (the mill never uses that much), reduced to 17 MGD for years 4 through 9, and to 16 MGD during year 10, the last year of the new permit. The mill only used 15.7 MGD and 15.8 MGD in 2001 and 2002, so if the new permit is granted as DEQ has proposed, there will be no meaningful impact on the mill’s use of water. But a message is being sent that future reductions are possible. Whether DEQ’s current proposal is adopted, or whether future reductions in permitted withdrawal actually materialize is anybody’s guess. If the “Capitalist Way” continues to prevail, mining a finite resource to protect today’s profits and jobs will be at the expense of potable water for future generations of Virginia’s coastal plain citizens.

The aquifer level at Surprise Hill has dropped eight feet since 2010

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