James City County has won permission from the state Department of Environmental Quality to draw up to 16.95 million gallons a day from the Chickahominy River at the county's Chickahominy Riverfront Park.
That's more than three times what the county now draws from its groundwater wells and more than twice the maximum allowed by its recently extended 15-year permit to draw from the Potomac aquifer.
"This gives us long term options for water supply," County Administrator Bryan Hill said.
He said the Chickahominy could supply the county's needs — including its ambitions to attract new businesses to expand its tax base — through at least 2050.
But it may not be the only way to do that.
"We're putting things in place to allow us time to find an answer," he said. "We know we're going to grow, the question is how fast."
Hill said the county may never actually use its new permission to tap the Chickahominy, but added that the new permit gives the county breathing space to look at all its alternatives. If the county supervisors do decide to go ahead, the idea would be to build the Chickahominy intake and treatment facility sometime around 2028 to 2032, Hill said. It would likely cost $120 million, but since the county is on track to slash its debt by more than half, to less that $100 million by 2023, it has the capacity to finance a project on that scale, he added.
One key question the Board of Supervisors will have to tackle over the next several years is how much any alternative will cost and how much water it could really provide.
Hill thinks a Hampton Roads Sanitation District initiative to slow the draining of the Potomac aquifer could mean groundwater will remain the primary, long term source of water for the county.
If so, it would be far less costly than building a new surface water intake and treatment plant.
He's watching HRSD's York County pilot project for aquifer replenishment closely, and said results of its operations so far look encouraging.
HRSD is building a larger replenishment plant in Suffolk, which would inject 1 million gallons a day of purified waste water back into the aquifer. Hill said he's looking for HRSD to build a second plant on the Peninsula, which could clear the way for the county to draw far more than its new groundwater permit allows.
If that happens at some point over the next seven to 10 years, Hill said the county could build a second treatment plant for groundwater. While HRSD can purify wastewater so that it exceeds safe drinking water standards, its plan is to inject that water deep underground, where it would travel slowly — over years or even decades — before reaching any of the drinking water wells that feed the county's water treatment plant and eventually its customers.
A second treatment plant would cost about $60 million, and in addition to processing more water, would insure the county had a backup in case its current plant had to shut down. At one point during this summer's heat waves, an operating glitch came close to cutting supplies before county staff were able to fix the problem, Hill said.
Newport News plan
Both the HRSD initiative and the new permission to tap the Chickahominy provide alternatives to the county's earlier plan for long term supply.
That plan, to connect with Newport News Waterworks, has already cost the county $25 million, as a fee for having the right to buy water.
It hasn't bought any so far.
And if the county is to continue to have the right to buy 4 million gallons a day from Waterworks, Hill said it would have to pay another $33 million in 2019, and invest roughly $15 million to connect to the Waterworks lines and to change its own system so that the different chemicals Waterworks uses to treat water don't corrode the county's water pipes.
The amount of water the county could draw from the Chickahominy or could draw and treat if the HRSD replenishment initiative allows it to draw more ground water is larger than what the Waterworks agreement provides. The cost per gallon of the Waterworks supply is pegged at a price nearly 50 percent more than the county's groundwater now costs.
The county has had to rethink its longstanding reliance of groundwater because the plunging water table in the Potomac aquifer, a wedge of sand, 200 to 400 feet deep when it is below the Peninsula, has led state regulators to slash the amounts users are allowed to draw.
The aquifer currently supplies all of the water for 21,000 homes and businesses in James City County. That same underground sand is where people and businesses in localities including Smithfield, Franklin and West Point get their water, and is a major source for Gloucester County. It supplies thousands of private wells in the region.
But because people are using water from the aquifer faster than rainfall replenishes it, land in Hampton Roads is sinking. That is why the area is considered the second most vulnerable, after below-sea-level New Orleans, to sea level rise.
Getting permission to draw surface water in eastern Virginia isn't easy, as the decades-long and unsuccessful effort of Newport News Waterworks to win permission for a reservoir in King William County shows.
"This gives the board time to plan and consider all its options," Hill said.
Before approving the Chickahominy permit, the DEQ looked at alternatives for drawing surface water, including spots on the York River, the James River and farther upstream on the Chickahominy at Brickyard Landing.
Key issues for each, as well as for the Chickahominy Riverfront Park site the DEQ approved, included how salty the water at each spot was, and effect on downstream saltiness of drawing water at each spot and treatment and disposal of the brine created when the raw water was treated.
The concern was not merely chemical, but the impact on aquatic life, including oyster harvesting grounds for the York River alternative, the DEQ said in detailing its reasons for granting the permit.
The York alternative was also a challenge because New Kent County is considering drawing water farther upstream, which would reduce the flow available to James City County.
A James River alternative was a challenge because of contaminants in the water and because the intake point was at a far lower elevation than most of the county's customers, which would boost the cost of pumping water to them.
The Brickyard Landing site did not have enough space for handling the brine.
Ress can be reached by telephone at 757-247-4535