Cranston's Mill Pond could serve as water source to address county's future need

Staff writer

Cranston’s Mill Pond is edging closer to securing its water withdrawal permit, perhaps as early as next year. Doing so would make the pond a real contender as James City weighs options to tackle its long-term water needs.

Located on 55 acres of land in upper James City and owned by the Chesapeake Bay Nutrient Land Trust and Restoration Systems, the pond has the potential to be a potable water source that could help address rising water demand as the state decreases how much water can be withdrawn from the Potomac Aquifer, the primary groundwater source for James City and other users in the region.

The aquifer has been depleted faster by humans than it can be naturally regenerated. In response, the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality lowered how much water localities and industries are allowed to withdraw in the eastern part of Virginia moving forward.

Enter Cranston’s Mill Pond, which Jeff Corbin, senior vice president for water quality markets and mitigation at Restoration Systems, views as a partial solution to the region’s looming water problem.

But there are still boxes to check. Corbin is waiting on a withdrawal permit almost two years after submitting the application to the Department of Environmental Quality.

After a lot of back and forth, he thinks he's getting close to the end and he hopes to have the permit in hand by early next year.

“It’s a very sophisticated process. They want to make sure they don’t permit anybody to take more water than they have available, so I completely understand the scrutiny,” he said.

Corbin spoke while standing on a covered wooden dock at the pond, its water fringed by trees. The languid water was interrupted only by the raindrops of a light shower on a dreary afternoon earlier this month.

On average, more than 8 million gallons of water flow over the pond’s spillway daily. The following morning, after a little more than an inch of rainfall, there were 34 million gallons streaming through on the way to Yarmouth Creek, Corbin said.

Corbin seeks a permit that would allow a maximum daily withdrawal of 15 million gallons of water, though the withdrawal amount will be determined by the state.

Who would get the water hasn’t been determined, though Corbin said he’s been in talks with James City. The game plan is to sell the property, along with the permit, to a user. Once the pond has its permit, the conversation can turn to what kind of facilities to build to withdraw the water and transport it.

“We’ve had some great discussions with them, but we’re still waiting for our permit from the state to find out exactly how much water we got,” Corbin said, referring to James City officials. “They really can’t flip the switch and make any kind of decision until they see the permit.”

The pond could be a useful asset to the county as it figures out how to make sure water still flows out residents’ taps several decades from now.

“We’ve been talking for a couple years now,” James City Service Authority general manager Doug Powell said. “It’s one of several options we’re considering.”

The county’s demand for water is expected to reach an average of 8.9 million gallons every day in 2050. That’s more than its current maximum groundwater withdrawal permit — which allows up to 8.4 million gallons a day through 2027. That permit will be decreased to about 3.8 million gallons of water daily. Currently, the county withdraws about 5.4 million gallons of water a day.

Weighing options

As such, groundwater alone just isn’t going to cut it. So, the county is weighing several options to address its water needs.

Among them is a proposed water treatment plant on the Chickahominy River at Chickahominy Riverfront Park. The facility, which is estimated to cost $128 million, still needs approval from the Army Corps of Engineers.

The corps hasn’t provided that permission yet, Powell said in a phone call Nov. 15.

In a meeting with Board of Supervisors in October, Powell said there were concerns regarding how the facility may affect Atlantic Sturgeon.

The DEQ and Virginia Marine Resource Commission have already approved a permit to draw up to 16.95 million gallons of water every day using the plant, which would withdraw water near Chickahominy Riverfront Park.

Cranston’s Mill Pond has a few perks that make it a worthy water source. It’s fresh water, meaning it will cost two-and-a-half to three times less to treat than salt water, Corbin said. Water around Chickahominy Riverfront Park is brackish, and treatment would have to include removing the salt in the water before it would be drinkable. The pond is also connected to shallow groundwater aquifers, which gives the pond some flexibility in periods of low rainfall.

Corbin said any withdrawal from Cranston’s Mill Pond would not have an impact on water withdrawal in the lower Chickahominy River, which would be downstream of the pond.

Any downstream effects of water withdrawal at the pond would be buffered by a tidal estuary outside the pond, Corbin said.

“It won’t affect water quality, it won’t affect the volume down there, it won’t affect the plants,” he said.

Asked whether he had any concerns about environmental effects the water withdrawal could have on the pond itself, Corbin said he didn’t, adding appropriate steps would be taken to minimize impact as part of any permit.

The pond is used as a nutrient bank, which means it has been used to capture nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment from the surrounding watershed to prevent negative effects downstream. If the pond is used as a water withdrawal site, that use could still continue, Corbin said.

The pond would likely not be enough on its own to meet the county’s needs.

Another option the county has is an agreement with Newport News Water Works to purchase water.

The county paid $25 million in 2008 for the right to buy up to 4 million gallons of water per day in 2008. The county has yet to actually buy any water, Powell said. In July 2019, the agreement will be up for renewal.

If the agreement isn’t renewed, the county will only be able to take 2 million gallons of water a day. There isn’t a cost associated with non-renewal beyond the cost of water, Powell said. Infrastructure to transport the water would need to be built as well.

Powell said county officials recently met with their counterparts in Newport News to discuss the agreement, though he declined to provide further details.

There’s also the Sustainable Water Initiative for Tomorrow program, which would purify wastewater and inject it into the Potomac Aquifer. A treatment facility would pump 8-10 million gallons of water a day into the aquifer.

“I think a lot of people, including the county, probably three years ago when they heard their permits were going to be cut were thinking ‘yeah, right.’ Well, their permits were cut,” Corbin said. “They have to come up with something, and so do a whole bunch of other water users.”

Jack Jacobs, 757-298-6007, jojacobs@vagazette.com, @jajacobs_

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