The following article is from the Virginia Eastern Shore Clean Water Council’s newsletter. It is their concern for our groundwater that brings you this urgent message.
Our sole-source aquifer – the only source for our drinking water and all our other needs — is nearing a tipping point. As you may know, the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) requires permits for any operation that withdraws more than 300,000 gallons a month (GPM). Two years ago, the DEQ began the permitting process for the new poultry farms on the Shore. The draft permits for 49 poultry house operations were issued on May 24, 2019. There are a number of concerns if these permits are issued as currently drafted. First and foremost, if the water is withdrawn at the rate currently proposed, with even the best-case scenario, we will be at or close to the tipping point — withdrawing water at the same rate the aquifer is being recharged. Once we go past that equilibrium point, we risk the draw-down of our aquifer, which could create hardships for individual homeowners and businesses, including failed wells, saltwater intrusion, or restrictions for larger users. Further depletion of the aquifer could mean more complex, expensive options. Remember — this is a sole-source aquifer, and there’s no other source of water we can bring in.
We don’t have to be here however. There is a second aquifer, the Columbia, that recharges much more quickly. Unfortunately, the poultry houses have already drilled their wells into the Yorktown aquifer. A large percentage of their needs are for cooling water where they do not need the purity of the Yorktown aquifer and they could use the Columbia in many of their locations.
In order to save our drinking water for human consumption, we want the DEQ to conditionally approve these permits with a plan to transition many of the wells over to the Columbia aquifer. This is where we need your urgent help. The DEQ has published the permits and has requested public comments by July 12. If you are concerned with preserving our drinking water for human consumption, you need to make sure the DEQ hears your concerns. You need to send them a letter or an email before July 12. Tell them that we expect them to preserve and protect our groundwater now, and for future generations.
For your convenience we have outlined a number of concerns about these permits that you can cut and paste or reword for your letter or email to the DEQ.
Joe Valentine – President – Virginia Eastern Shore Clean Water Council
About Virginia Eastern Shore Clean Water Council. A year ago, we evolved as an organization from the Virginia Eastern Shorekeeper to become the Virginia Eastern Shore Clean Water Council, but our mission has not changed — our goal is to preserve, protect, and improve the waters of the Eastern Shore of Virginia. This includes the Chesapeake Bay and creeks, the seaside bays and creeks, our Atlantic waters, as well as our groundwater.
We are urging all of our members to submit comments to DEQ on these draft permits. We have outlined below a few of the issues that we are concerned about, please feel free to use any of this language, or put your concerns into your own words.
The draft permits are available for viewing at: https://www.deq.virginia.gov/Programs/Water/WaterSupplyWaterQuantity/WaterWithdrawalPermittingandCompliance/EasternShorePoultryFarmPermitting.aspx .
Public comments will be accepted through July 12, and can be addressed to: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Comments can also be mailed to Virginia Department of Environmental Quality, P.O. Box 1105, Richmond, VA 23218, or hand-delivered to DEQ at 1111 East Main Street, Suite 1400, Richmond, VA 23219 (804-698-4000; 800-592-5482). All comments must include the name, address, and telephone number of the person commenting.
COMMENTS AND CONCERNS
1. Mandate use of the Columbia Aquifer
Our aquifer actually consists of four aquifers, or “layers.” The shallowest is the Columbia aquifer, followed by the deeper Yorktown-Eastover, which is divided into the Upper, Middle, and Lower Yorktown-Eastover. While the Columbia is recharged almost immediately with rainfall, only 0.05% of precipitation reaches the Yorktown-Eastover aquifers. The Yorktown-Eastover aquifer is also considered the safest for human consumption. With a couple of possible exceptions, the wells for all of the poultry operations in these draft permits are in the Yorktown aquifer. However, even if you argue that water for bird consumption should come from the Yorktown, a large portion of the water usage is for cooling, for which the Columbia water is more than adequate.
While it is a positive sign that 26 of the 49 poultry operations have a Special Condition added to their permit to investigate an alternative source (i.e., the Columbia); these test wells are only required sometime within the next five years. There is no language requiring the use of the Columbia if the test well shows sufficient water quality and quantity, prior to the permit renewal in fifteen years.
- DEQ has not provided adequate justification as to why all of the poultry operations don’t require test wells.
- All permits should include a provision to require that test wells in the Columbia aquifer be installed within two years, not five years.
- The permits should include a provision that requires DEQ to re-open the permit should the test wells show sufficient water quality and quantity from the Columbia. The permit should further require use of the Columbia aquifer as dictated by the results from the test wells.
- The criteria for the test wells in the Columbia need to be spelled out, including the minimum duration for the pumping test, and criteria for adequacy of water quality and quantity.
2. Overall Groundwater Estimates
Adding the overall estimated usage from these poultry farms to the current estimates for groundwater usage on the Shore brings us to a virtual tipping point. With even the best-case scenario, we will be at or close to the point where we are withdrawing water faster than it is being recharged. If we get into a deficit situation, we could be looking at more failed wells, more saltwater intrusion, or restrictions for larger users. With all water already allocated, it could also mean that new businesses would be discouraged from moving in.
DEQ’s current estimate for withdrawals from the 49 poultry operations is 1.179 million gallons a day (MGD); adding this to the actual usage from all other permitted facilities on the Shore (from 2017) of 5.72 MGD, and the current estimate for residential and all other uses of 2.06 MGD, yields 8.959 MGD, basically even with our recharge rate of 9 MGD. This is the best-case scenario, and does not include an additional 7 poultry operations identified (5 with partial applications); the usage from the poultry operations that fall below the 300,000 GPM threshold; the requested expanded withdrawal for the Tyson plant; increased usage during drought years; or additional cooling needs as temperatures rise from climate change.
- We need assurances from DEQ that all future groundwater withdrawal permit applications – poultry or otherwise – will take this into account, and that all future permits will require investigation of the Columbia as a source, to decrease the pressure on the Yorktown-Eastover aquifer.
3. Environmental Justice for Our Neighbors
DEQ’s modeling showed areas of impact for each of the 49 facilities, with the largest area of impact in Pungoteague (1.4 miles in diameter). Mitigation plans are required for 44 of the poultry operations where the area of impact extends off the property of the poultry operation. If a homeowner or business within the area of impact has an issue with their well and is within the same aquifer, the poultry farm will be responsible for mitigation, i.e., paying to restore the other user’s water. However, there is no mechanism to notify homeowners or businesses that they lie within the area of impact. The language for the mitigation plan provides little protection for our most vulnerable populations, who may not know their rights, and may not be able to navigate this process. As stated in the draft permits, the poultry operations will be the sole initial decider as to whether there was an impact, after which it will go to an appeal process, including the homeowner/claimant, the poultry operation, and a third party. The poultry operation will have 72 hours to provide emergency water supplies, for human consumption only.
- We need additional protections in place for our residents and small businesses. Potable water should be provided within 12 hours to an impacted party. And the mitigation/response plan as currently proposed is weighted heavily against the aggrieved party. This is not acceptable, and should be revised to require that either DEQ or Accomack-Northampton Planning District Commission (A-NPDC) be the administrator of the mitigation program, with any dispute resolution under the authority of DEQ.
- An Environmental Justice analysis should be completed on all 49 poultry operations. In addition, written notification (in Spanish and English) should be made to all property owners within the area of impact for every poultry operation. This notification should include the DEQ contact information and complete information on the mitigation response program. This should be completed by DEQ, at the cost of the applicant, within four weeks of the permit approval.
4. Other Points to Consider
- We need clarification from DEQ on the process for any new permits (non-residential use). Applications should be submitted before the wells are drilled, and the burden should be on the applicant to prove they can’t use the Columbia, with test well data to prove their case.
- The results from the test wells, and all metered usage data, should be made available to the public on a timely basis.
- DEQ’s modeling (which forecasts impacts over the next 50 years) did not include sea level rise or other impacts of climate change. How will periods of drought or increased temperatures impact the usage? Will this expand the areas of impact? In a period of water restrictions, will residents have priority over poultry?
- DEQ began this process in 2017 with 84 poultry operations, based on their Virginia Pollution Abatement permits. By early 2018, they had narrowed this down to 56 poultry operations, after which 2 were dropped because their usage fell below 300,000 GPM. An additional 5 poultry operations have indicated they believe they will also fall below that threshold, which resulted in the remaining 49 with draft permits. However, DEQ has never provided an explanation of the status for the remaining 28 poultry operations (when 84 was narrowed down to 56); we need a full accounting of all poultry operations on the Shore and the process they have followed.
If you are concerned with preserving our drinking water for human consumption, you need to make sure DEQ hears your concerns, and send them an email or letter before July 12.
Please express your concerns and let DEQ know that we expect them to preserve and protect our groundwater, now and for future generations.