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05.13.2015 Virginia’s Draft State Water Resources Plan By: Henry R. "Speaker" Pollard, V

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The severe drought in Virginia in 2002 saw several localities nearly exhaust available public water supplies and reenergized public policy concerns about Virginia’s water resources and their proper and sustainable management.  This led the General Assembly to mandate the development of local and state water supply plans to ensure better planning and coordination of use of available surface water and groundwater supplies.  It further charged Virginia’s Department of Environmental Quality (“DEQ”) to oversee this process and prepare an overall state water supply plan (“SWRP”).  Local and regional plans were due in 2011, and DEQ has been working since then to compile the information from the forty-eight local and regional plans it received and develop a draft SWRP.  DEQ has just recently issued a draft SWRP for public comment.  See http://www.deq.virginia.gov/Programs/Water/WaterSupplyWaterQuantity/WaterSupplyPlanning/StateWaterPlan.aspx.

Virginia relies heavily on available water supplies for nearly every critical function of public health and the economy, and preserving appropriate instream flows and groundwater levels is essential for environmental and aquatic species function and sustainable planning. It is therefore difficult to overstate the importance of this process to local and regional water suppliers, business and industry, and agricultural interests, as well as other natural resources agencies and environmental groups, many of which have watched this process closely. 

Several key findings of the draft SWRP warrant special attention.  First, DEQ anticipates a net increase of 32% in statewide demand for water by 2040 – an additional 450 million gallons per day – the great majority of which is to come from surface water supplies. Second, nearly 97% of the additional demand is likely to be sought from only 25% of the surface water supplies in the Commonwealth, and drought impacts are expected to be more severe for many water resources.  Surface storage through reservoirs and other tank storage will be better able to withstand this increased stress.  Third, DEQ reports a number of challenges in further water supply planning, including lack of understanding of unpermitted withdrawals, groundwater withdrawal impacts in the western part of the state with karst geology, difficulties in developing new reservoirs, and addressing potential conflicting uses of water resources, to name a few.

The SWRP itself states that it is designed in part to “assist the DEQ in the efficient and effective regulation and management of water resources by examining projected water demand, identifying water resources targeted to meet this demand, and analyzing potential impacts that may occur if the demand is met.”  Given DEQ’s additional regulatory role in permitting surface water and groundwater withdrawals, the SWRP will be an important (though not dispositive) reference during DEQ’s review of withdrawal permit applications, particularly as to the justification for such withdrawals, conflicts with other users of those resources, and wastewater and stormwater discharges affecting downstream flows. 

Virginia’s relative abundance of water supply should not be taken for granted.  The SWRP should help provide water supply stakeholder with meaningful information and analysis. A work in progress, it is hoped that it will fulfill its mission.