MILFORD – Tighter state controls on groundwater use will slow down Caroline County’s drilling of public wells and could make the Rappahannock River a more appealing option in the future, according to the county’s utilities director.
The State Water Control Board voted unanimously in June in favor of tighter controls of groundwater use in counties east of Interstate 95. That’s because underground water levels have been dropping in some of those counties.
The new regulations must be approved by Gov. Bob McDonnell before being implemented, and that could take several months, said Joseph C. Schiebel, interim director of public utilities for Caroline County.
Meanwhile, Schiebel and his staff are working with the engineering firm of Golder Associates of Richmond to test-drill more wells for the county public water supply. The county has 10 wells east and west of I-95.
“We want to drill three or four more wells that will produce 200 gallons per minute” west of I-95, Schiebel said.
Currently, the county can go to the state Department of Health and get a well-drilling permit within 15 to 20 days.
However, Schiebel is concerned that the new well-drilling permit process through the state Department of Environmental Quality could take a year. “It’s just another level of bureaucracy to go through and more waiting time and additional funds to take care of the requirements,” he said. It also will be more costly because the county will have to prove to the state that it needs new wells in the future, said Schiebel.
Groundwater levels in counties closer to the coast are dropping, but those levels have remained steady in Caroline for three or four years, Schiebel said. In fact, the August 2011 earthquake actually improved some of Caroline’s wells, which range from 250 to 600 feet in depth. Over time, iron and manganese deposits in the water tend to clog up millions of tiny cracks and fractures in giant rocks where Caroline’s deep wells reach and where groundwater is stored. The minerals eventually make the wells less productive, but the earthquake may have created new fractures.
The water control board’s action in June added Caroline to the existing Eastern Virginia Groundwater Management Area along with the counties of Essex, Gloucester, King George, King and Queen, Lancaster, Mathews, Middlesex, Northumberland, Richmond and Westmoreland. The original proposal by the water control board said only the portion of Caroline east of I-95 would be added, but Schiebel said he understands that all of Caroline is in the management area. Parts of Spotsylvania and Stafford also were added.
The smaller management area ran from eastern Hanover, Henrico and Chesterfield counties to Hampton Roads.
Groundwater levels in the new area are declining two to four feet annually, according to DEQ. “Since the entire coastal plain aquifer system is interconnected, the system must be managed as a whole to maintain a sustainable future groundwater supply,” the DEQ website says.
Entities that withdraw 300,000 gallons or more of groundwater per month (around 7 gallons a minute) must get a permit from the state, and the permit will be good for 10 years. After 10 years, the user may be required to reduce usage or else the permit may not be reissued. The first permit will have an application fee close to $1,000 while subsequent application fees could be thousands of dollars more.
Caroline’s public water system has the ability to produce 901,440 gallons a day or 2.7 million gallons a month, Schiebel has told the Caroline County Board of Supervisors in recent months. However, water usage in the county reaches peak levels around Memorial Day and Labor Day.
Demand on Caroline’s system is growing. From July 2012 to mid-June 2013, the county added 55 new water connections to its system, and these were mostly new homes – far exceeding the predicted 37 connections. On top of that, the county assumed operation in October 2012 of the water system serving Caroline Pines Subdivision, which has 380 homes. Due to inferior quality, the Caroline Pines wells proved to be useless to the county.
The Caroline County Water Master Plan calls for the county to look into drawing water from the Rappahannock River in the future.
“Eventually it will make sense to go to the Rappahannock River,” Schiebel said, adding that it may be “the only long-term solution for Caroline as the county grows.
“The Rappahannock River makes a lot of sense because of the volume of water there. But some of the same regulatory issues will be involved.
“Our concern is someone getting a permit to discharge wastewater upstream from us,” Schiebel said, noting that Fredericksburg and King George already discharge their wastewater into the Rappahannock upstream from where Caroline would take water from the river.
Although the river is a huge volume of water and can easily dissipate treated wastewater, other concerns are the effect of the tide. The river’s “flow stops and actually reverses at times,” noted Schiebel.
Waiting up to a year for a DEQ permit to drill a well will be frustrating, Schiebel said, because the county already has to spend time and thousands of dollars to test-drill to find a good location for a well. Some test wells produced 10 gallons a minute while others produced 300. Once a well is drilled, the water quality has to meet requirements of the state and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
“From the time we drill a well until the time it’s producing water for the system, it takes one and a half years,” Schiebel said. “EPA limits the amount of minerals you can have in the water.” Sometimes the county has to build green sand filtering systems near a well to remove minerals.
“Right now, we’re at a comfortable position” as far as water usage in the county, Schiebel, said. “If we have a month of dry weather and people are using lot of water, we monitor the system very closely. When it’s really hot and people are using their garden hoses, we may need to go into water restrictions. We’ve been lucky this year with all the rain.”