Interest in Groundwater Protection Rises

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By Linda Cicoira — Water withdrawal, wastewater runoff and unlined dumps are all sources of concern on the Eastern Shore in the quest for a safe environment and clean water for all. 

The state requires groundwater withdrawal permits to be obtained if the usage of a well or well system exceeds 300,000 gallons per month, according to the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) website.

A pond that is recharged by groundwater with mechanical assistance and goes over the maximum is also required to have a permit. The authorizations are given for up to 10 years and there is no fee for agricultural use.

These requirements don’t just pertain to poultry houses, but those are the users who have been in the limelight lately. Permits are also needed when one plans to expand the usage of wells.

“As I understand it, DEQ has been working to get poultry growers to voluntarily apply for groundwater withdrawal permits and that 35 poultry growers have made application,” Rich Morrison, Accomack’s deputy administrator of building, planning and economic development, said this week. “The 35 number includes both existing and new poultry operations.”

In a 2015 county memo, Tyson Foods representatives stated for a house of roughly 40,000 chickens, the water usage is about 129,000 gallons over the course of the seven-week growing cycle for each poultry house. 

A breakdown showed 5,000 gallons in the first week, 10,000 in the second, 15,000 in the third, 20,000 in the forth, 23,000 in the fifth, 26,000 in the sixth and 30,000 in the last. “This is approximately 30 gallons per minute, 40 gallons per minute in a worst-case scenario,” the memo stated.

In some locations, there are as many as 24 massive poultry houses, known as concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs). The U.S. Department of Agriculture defines a CAFO as an animal feeding operation that raises more than 1,000 animals in confinement for more than 45 days a year. 

At a recent locally-held DEQ public hearing, residents who live in or near an influx of new chicken houses near Pungoteague and Wachapreague voiced their concerns about water usage, contamination from runoff and possible air pollution.

Not far away, are two unlined dump sites — the county’s southern landfill, which is closed, but was started before regulations required a lining to prevent seepage into the groundwater, and sewage disposal lagoons, off Drummondtown Road near Wachapreague, that were closed by the health department several years ago. 

There is also an old dump, used about 50 years ago with no restrictions on what could be left there, on Pennyville Road near the Virginia Tech Eastern Shore Agricultural Research and Extension Center. At the time the dump was used, most people burned what they could in an old oil drum.

Leaks must be prevented by well construction “or interaction between aquifers.” Water withdrawal is regulated by DEQ but the local health department issues permits for well construction. 

Jon Richardson, environmental health manager senior, for the Eastern Shore Health District, said every time a well is being drilled, he gives the DEQ a heads up. Richardson also mentioned a groundwater compliance initiative that is being worked on locally. 

He said 14 chicken farms have applied for 113 wells since May 2016. “They (the poultry growers) generally apply for several wells together,” Richardson said. All but six applications were permitted. Those were made recently and are still in the process. “Not all (the wells) have been installed yet,” Richardson said Wednesday.

Those having wells drilled are also required to contact DEQ at least two weeks prior to installation to ensure compliance with permit requirements. 

“Most applications for new or expanded groundwater withdrawal permits are required to include” a pre-application meeting with DEQ; an explanation regarding the need for the water withdrawal; well construction documentation; geophysical log data and location data for all system wells; hydrogeologic information such as, but not limited to, aquifer properties transmissivity and storage coefficient. “Aquifer testing may be required before, at or following the pre-application meeting.” 

Also required is “a plan to mitigate impacts to pre-existing users.” A water conservation and management plan is also necessary.

It must include the use of water-saving plumbing and processes; a water-loss reduction program that defines the leak detection and repair program; a water-use education program; evaluation of potential water reuse options; mandatory use reduction during water shortage emergencies with ordinances and penalties in place for municipal systems; an evaluation of the lowest quality water needed for the intended beneficial use; and an alternative water supply source evaluation for the proposed withdrawal. Applications must contain all required information and be deemed “complete” at least 270 days before the start of construction or operation of a new or expanded use permit or before the expiration of an existing permit.

The growers who are applying for groundwater withdrawal permits with DEQ are not necessarily the same ones asking for permits to drill new wells from the health department. It is hard to compare since two different agencies are involved in the process.

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