The Potomac Aquifer has seen better days.
Stretching across eastern Virginia and beyond, the aquifer is the primary groundwater source for the Peninsula. Years of human consumption has caught up with it, and exceeds the depleted aquifer’s natural ability to replenish with rainwater.
Faced with this problem, the Hampton Roads Sanitation District’s proposed Sustainable Water Initiative for Tomorrow project would replenish the aquifer — which, in some parts of eastern Virginia has dropped 200 feet or more in the past century — with treated wastewater.
For some folks, the idea might be a dicey proposition: Take wastewater, treat it and then inject it into the Potomac Aquifer to be extracted and eventually make its way to household taps and businesses.
Sen. Monty Mason, D-Williamsburg, aims to provide some oversight of the project with Senate Bill 1414, legislation he has introduced in the Senate to create an advisory board and laboratory to keep tabs on the project.
“It’s an amazing solution to solve this problem,” Mason said Wednesday. “Our aquifers have dropped substantially.”
If enacted as law, the bill would establish the Potomac Aquifer Recharge Oversight Committee, a 10-person advisory board intended to monitor the project. The board would consist of the state health commissioner, department of environmental quality director, the executive director of the Hampton Roads Planning District Commission, the two co-directors of the laboratory, the director of the Occoquan Watershed Monitoring Laboratory, two state citizens appointed by the governor and two non-voting members.
The committee would be required to meet at least quarterly for its first three years of operation. The legislation provides for the committee to appoint a science and technical advisory council. The committee would be funded by HRSD for its first three years of existence.
While the committee is intended to be an independent check on HRSD’s project, HRSD would have a seat at the committee’s table and would provide the funding to make the effort happen.
But Mason said he didn’t have concerns about HRSD’s relationship with the committee, saying the committee is just one more layer of oversight and one that HRSD puts upon itself willingly.
“It is HRSD imposing upon itself a redundancy to ensure everything is done right,” he said.
The legislation would also create the Potomac Aquifer Recharge Monitoring Laboratory, which would be directed by an Old Dominion University faculty member and a Virginia Tech faculty member. The lab would monitor the project’s effect on the aquifer, manage test data and conduct testing and analysis of the water.
The Department of Health commissioner and State Water Control Board would be authorized to issue emergency orders to stop treated water injection into the aquifer or “make any change to any facility of the SWIFT Project,” according to the bill’s summary.
The laboratory will be in Hampton Roads and will have an annual cost of about $1 million. The committee’s financial need is estimated to be less than $25,000 annually, HRSD general manager Ted Henifin said in an email.
The bill has been referred to the Senate’s Agriculture, Conservation and Natural Resources Committee. Mason expects the bill to be up for a committee vote next week.
The SWIFT project is one of a number of options James City County is considering as it weighs how to meet future water needs. Other options are a water treatment plant on the Chickahominy River or Cranston’s Mill Pond and an agreement to buy water from Newport News. County officials expect to utilize some combination of those options to address anticipated water needs.
HRSD plans to build the program’s first treatment facility at an existing plant in James City by the end of 2023. The facility would inject about 8 million gallons of water a day into the aquifer, Henifin said.
In May, HRSD opened a $25 million project research center in Suffolk. The facility can create up to 1 million gallons of drinkable water per day, and treated water will be injected into the aquifer to test the project before full-scale implementation, according to an HRSD news release.
The EPA provided approval for the Suffolk facility. The agency requires individual permits for each facility, and HRSD plans to modify five existing facilities to be part of the SWIFT program. The James City facility permit process is anticipated to start this spring, Henifin said.
Jack Jacobs, 757-298-6007, firstname.lastname@example.org, @jajacobs_