Caution urged on Chickahominy water treatment plant proposal

James City Service Authority is proposing to build a treatment plant along the Chickahominy River to keep James City County supplied with water.

The project seeks to address an anticipated water supply shortfall in groundwater — JCSA’s sole water source — that may come from upcoming heightened state restrictions on groundwater withdrawal.

The restrictions are driven in part by excessive draining of groundwater reserves, according to a water supply study contracted by the JCSA.

JCSA’s maximum extraction amounts to almost 9 million gallons of water daily from groundwater, and new regulations could slash its maximum withdrawal almost in half. That means JCSA needs a new water source for customers in James City County, parts of Williamsburg and York County.

A solution could come from local surface water sources, specifically the Chickahominy River, according to local officials who spoke at a Monday meeting hosted by the authority.

The JSCA is permitted to withdraw a maximum of 8.8 million gallons of water per day under its existing groundwater withdrawal permit. New state restrictions will force the authority to aim for a new target ceiling of 3.8 million to 4 million gallons per day from groundwater sources, said Scott Kudlas, director of the office of the water supply at the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality.

By 2050, the project’s joint permit application estimates local demand at an average of 8.9 million gallons per day.

The proposed Chickahominy River facility is projected to provide on average 12 million gallons of usable water daily after treatment to make up water lost as a result of new restrictions, as well as address projected demand over a 15-year period, Kudlas said.

“Groundwater in coastal plain aquifers in Virginia have been declining for a very long time,” said Kudlas.

Shrinking groundwater resources

For about 100 years, regional groundwater has seen an average decline of 2 to 4 feet per year, Kudlas said.

Just a tenth of an inch, to an inch of Virginia’s average rainfall of 40 inches a year soaks into the ground to enter the region’s groundwater supply, which is centered on West Point and extends in an arc from Virginia Beach to the northern edge of the Eastern Shore, the Virginia Gazette reported in October. The layer of sediment provides water to tens of thousands of people and withdrawal has outpaced renewal.

Should groundwater reserves fall too low, permanent damage to the environment could result, Kudlas said.

In 2014, The DEQ proposed a 57 percent cut on withdrawal from regional locations extracting more than 1 million gallons a day from groundwater. The restrictions are intended to stop the decline in groundwater levels by 2025.

On average, JCSA withdraws 5.4 million gallons of water per day from existing sources, Kudlas said.

Chickahominy plan

JCSA plans to build its $128 million facility at Chickahominy Riverfront Park with a water intake built around where Gordon Creek meets the Chickahominy, according to the project’s joint permit application. According to maps included in the joint permit application, sections of campground and wetlands exist in the locations of plant facilities, but the park’s recreation center will be unaffected.

Construction is proposed to begin in 2021 and is estimated to be completed in 2025, according to the joint permit application.

JCSA will continue to extract groundwater according to limits set in its current groundwater permit until a new reduced permit is approved in a process separate from the proposal for the Chickahominy River facility, Kudlas said.

The water treatment facility joint permit application is still under consideration to be submitted to the DEQ, Kudlas said. Comments made during Monday’s meeting along with any submitted in the next couple weeks will be included with the application when it’s considered for approval, according to a public notice about the meeting.

Environmental impact

At the meeting, the proposal was presented as the best solution to an unavoidable problem facing the community. However, roughly a third of the about approximately three dozen audience members, from localities like JCC, Charles City and even Richmond, who spoke during the public comment period expressed doubt about the project, particularly about the facility’s environmental impact.

“You got a national treasure here,” Charles City resident Charlie Brown, 72, said of the river.
The Chickahominy River’s fish population makes the area a magnet for tourists, Brown said. Shifts in the water’s makeup brought on by the desalination process could ruin the population and in turn damage the local economy, he said.

The facility will create a briny solution in need of disposal during its treatment process. Where the solution will be discharged hasn’t been determined and will be the subject of an additional proposal in the future, said Karina Hull, CDM Smith project manager of the facility proposal.

CDM Smith is the engineering firm assisting in the project.

A four-month salinity modeling process will be conducted to test effects of the withdrawal and discharge resulting from the facility after the proposal is submitted, Hull said.
Some meeting attendees argued the project’s objectives could be accomplished through other water sources.

The York and James rivers were considered as water sources, but were deemed less suitable due to factors such as high salinity or pollution concerns, according to the joint permit application.

The joint permit application is currently in a draft form and won’t be submitted until the end of the public comment period, which ends Aug. 8.

“There are milestones out there to make us take another look at this,” said Doug Powell, JCSA general manager.

Jacobs can be reached by phone at 804-269-1769.

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