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Olin Conference on Watershed Management

Issues in Regional and State Watershed Planning: Virginia as an Example

Kay Slaughter


Background: Responsibility for water supply has traditionally been divided between the Virginia Department of Health (VDH) and Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) and the State Water Control Board (SWCB-citizen group that makes final water decisions). VDH requires that when a public water supply reaches 80% of its capacity over a three-month period, expansion of the waterworks should be planned. VDH then permits the building of a water supply utility.

On the other hand, DEQ regulates other aspects of water withdrawals under the Virginia Water Protection Permit which requires that any water withdrawal project needing § 401 certification under the Clean Water Act (virtually all projects) obtain a state permit that establishes a minimum instream flow.

DEQ is thus charged to consider how the permit will affect the preservation of instream flows for "protection of navigation, maintenance of waste assimilation capacity, the protection of fish and wildlife resources and habitat, recreation, cultural, and aesthetic values." VA Code § 62.1-44.15:5(C).

Virginia Code also charges the State Water Control Board with the responsibility to develop the water policy and articulates seven guidelines for it to do so. VA Code Ann. 62.1-44.36. It also authorizes the Board to resolve any conflict between water uses (VA Code 62.1-44-37) and to make recommendations on planning for future water supplies Va. Code. § 62.1-44.38. The statute requires the Board to prepare plans and programs for management of water resources for each major river basin: Potomac-Shenandoah, Rappahannock, York, James, Chowan, Roanoke, New River and Tennessee Big Sandy. Yet 30 years after this provision was put into the Code, no such studies have been done.

Governor Warner in his first state of the state address in 2002 signaled that water resources and water supply would be a priority of his Administration. At the same time, the Virginia Water Commission had also introduced a resolution stating its intention to study the issue of statewide water resources policy -- an issue that the Water Commission had tried to tackle in 1994 and then backed off, when local governments expressed concerns that the state was preempting what they saw as their prerogative.

Thus, in the fall of 2002, the Secretary of Natural Resources Tayloe Murphy and Water Commission Chair Martin Williams agreed to collaborate in developing legislation, and they made sure to include many representatives of local and regional waterworks in a "stakeholder" group.

The stakeholder group assembled by DEQ in November was huge: representatives from the Agriculture, Virginia Manufacturers Association, power industry, well drillers' association, conservation organizations and 8 representatives of local governments and waterworks associations as well as a several officials from other agencies, i.e., Planning District Commissions, US Army Corps of Engineers and US Geological Survey.

The drought also probably contributed to a greater willingness to cooperate with state planning efforts. Almost everyone seemed to agree that the state as well as the local utilities needed to work together to develop a comprehensive plan for present and future water needs.

Early on, the committee addressed the seven planning principles spelled out in the water law.

Immediately, members of the committee started nitpicking the principles outlined in the statute, for example:

1. Protection of existing water rights subject to the principle that all state waters belong to the public for use by the people for beneficial purposes without waste.

"What does it mean that state waters belong to the public? Won't this infringe on private rights?" was one response.

2. Adequate supplies should be preserved and protected for human consumption while conserving maximum supplies for other beneficial uses.

"Why should human consumption be elevated over other consumption, for example farm animals?" asked another.

3. Integration and coordination of uses of water for all beneficial purposes be achieved for the maximum economic development.

"What are these beneficial uses?" was another response.

In fact, Virginia law spells out the goals of protecting booth instream and offstream beneficial uses: instream includes "protection of fish and wildlife habitat, maintenance of waste assimilation, recreation, navigation and cultural and aesthetic values" and offstream domestic, agricultural, electric power, commercial and industrial uses, public water supply. VA Code Ann. 62.1-10(b).

But other principles mentioned in the statute include:

4. Protection of wildlife

5. Maintenance of stream flows for aquatic life

6. Watershed development policies for preservation of balanced multiple uses.

7. Due regard to planning of water recreation facilities without pollution.

DEQ also proposed inclusion of several other principles: the interconnection of ground and surface water, the importance of water conservation and demand management in nondrought periods; and the need to develop a variety of drought measures and other water supply alternatives, such as recycling and reuse of industrial process water.

Because there was so much contention over rewriting the principles in existing law, DEQ leaders went back to a simpler concept, getting the groups to agree to writing a general statute directing the agency to do what it was supposed to have done 30 years ago under the existing law. Those of us in the conservation community were unsure that a proposed law would come out of the advisory committee. We thus worked with legislators from Charlottesville and Roanoke, the two drought hot-spots, to create a amendment to the water resources law. I'll discuss later some of its provisions.

Legislation: At any rate, the Technical Advisory Committee agreed to a bill that was subsequently endorsed by the Water Commission. The bill directs the SWCB to develop a draft statewide water resources plan and criteria for the development of local and regional water resources plans. The legislation passed yet not without considerable tinkering with its enactment clauses directing the agency to report back to the General Assembly next year on its draft criteria and draft plan and stating that the planning effort should not affect, positively or negatively, projects already in the pipeline.

Passage of the legislation has simply delayed dealing with the hard questions until the Technical Advisory Committee convenes later this spring or summer. The advisory committee will probably be somewhat expanded. It sorely needs more people with expertise in groundwater hydrology and water resources planning. "Special interest" representation is inadequate to address issues of this magnitude, and the municipal waterworks technical people do not have all the answers either.

Planning Criteria: So let me tell you what I think is needed in order to do sufficient water supply planning, beginning with suggestions that Senator John Edwards of Roanoke and Del. Mitch Van Yahres of Charlottesville had proposed in their legislation-most of these could be adopted as criteria:

  • Affirmation that water IS a public resource, not a private commodity, and that landowners should continue to be allowed reasonable use for their own purposes but not withdrawals that would supply needs offsite;
  • Requiring development of comprehensive regional watershed (and sub-watershed) plans;
  • Projecting water needs over a 25-year horizon;
  • Projection of groundwater and surface water withdrawals for agricultural, industrial and domestic use.
  • Protection of groundwater, headwaters and estuaries;
  • Estimate of natural seasonal flow patterns for major streams and rivers and minimum instream flows necessary in drought and nondrought periods;
  • Adoption of a management protocol using natural seasonal flow to preserve instream flows necessary for aquatic life;
  • Comprehensive groundwater management plans in discrete aquifers;
  • Development of a management system to prevent waste and encourage conservation;
  • Conservation measures for drought and nondrought periods;
  • Development of a variety of supply alternatives, including where appropriate, desalination of groundwater;
  • Projection of amounts that can be withdrawn without damage to instream uses and triggers for use of conservation measures before increased water withdrawals are permitted.
  • A common set of population growth projections on which all communities base their water needs (e.g., Virginia Employment Commission or Weldon Cooper Center population estimates).

Water Basin Planning: How should these criteria be addressed? Working on water supply needs on a river basin or sub-basin level would appear to be the best approach. Some areas are already doing this - The Rappahannock River Basin Commission is the most comprehensive, but the Roanoke River Basin has recently begun an interstate process with North Carolina to develop a plan for the future of that watershed.

Planning within each of Virginia's nine river basins (and sub-basins) could be accomplished by convening river basin commissions comprised of technical staff and stakeholders, including local citizen and conservation representatives. Each watershed commission would develop:

  • an inventory of all existing and planned future uses of water in the basin;
  • scientific information about the capacity of the watershed to supply water for human consumption, agricultural, industrial and other uses while protecting instream fisheries and recreational uses;
  • A computerized hydrologic model (or set of models) simulating the amount of flow in each stream and river during permitted water withdrawals (and dam operations).

These various water basin plans would provide the basis for a statewide plan. The state would need to develop a water permitting and enforcement system.

Finally, in addition to regional basin planning, at an even more basic level, local city and county governments should incorporate water resource planning into local comprehensive plans. Beyond comprehensive plans, this would entail development of conservation, pricing programs and retrofits of water saving equipment to build the conservation ethic during nondrought periods.

In summary, a few other quick observations:

  • Localities should look to water conservation as a potential supply source instead of simply building more dams and reservoirs.
  • The Water Board needs to use the existing Surface Water Management Act to allocate water during drought.
  • The grandfathering of existing withdrawals should end - all should be reviewed in light of today's needs and technology.
  • Finally, in this time of decreased financial resources, we should consider instituting a statewide fee based on water usage to fund additional research on water quantity and quality improvements.

John M. Olin Conference on Watershed Management

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