League of Women Voters Asks: What do we do when the rains stop?

How prepared is Charlottesville and Albemarle County for the next drought? Can saving water now help prolong the community’s water supply when rain is scarce? Those are two of the questions explored during a community forum held by the League of Women Voters on February 24, 2009. The issue is timely as Virginia is considered to be in the early stages of a drought according to Martha Levering of the LWV’s Natural Resources Committee. Top officials with the Rivanna Water and Sewer Authority (RWSA), the Albemarle County Service Authority (ACSA) and the City of Charlottesville’s Utilities Department were on hand to provide their answers.

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Source: RWSA presentation

Tom Frederick, Executive Director of the RWSA, explained to the audience that his agency employs  one of the “most innovative and objective ways” of implementing drought management.  At the moment, Central Virginia has had less than average rainfall since the spring of 2006.

“There’s a suggestion that for Virginia, the future that we’re in for might be more periods of heavier wet weather, but also cycles of more intense dry weather,” Frederick said. “And I’ve heard some people in this community say we need to be planning for our future beyond a drought of record, which is the way the Virginia statutes refer to what is required for [water supply] planning.”

In Virginia, both localities and the Governor can declare a drought emergency. Virginia law requires localities to have three stages of drought, each with a specific conservation target. Frederick said the RWSA uses a computer model to predict whether the community is in a hydrological drought. That means that the watershed does not have sufficient stream flows to refill the reservoirs. The OASIS model draws upon 83 years of historical data as well as current conditions to determine the amount of water that remains in storage.

“We can predict with near certainty that through the month of March and through the month of April, our reservoirs are highly likely to remain full,” Frederick said. July though October are the months to be concerned, he added. The OASIS model also factors in existing patterns of use.

When droughts do occur, Frederick said it was important for the RWSA to work in tandem with the ACSA and the City of Charlottesville during drought emergencies. Whereas the RWSA develops the risk assessment model and manages the reservoir system, the ACSA and the City are charged with public education campaigns to reduce water consumption. The City Council and Board of Supervisors must vote to implements the various drought stages.

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Gary Fern, Executive Director of the ACSA, said the model helps the ACSA determine when to react to a drought.

Source: RWSA

“If the model tells us that there’s a greater than 20% probability that total storage will be less than 80% within 12 weeks, we know that we need to start calling on a drought watch,” Fern said. “If the model is run a little later and we find out that there is a 10% probability that storage will be less than 70% within ten weeks, we go to the drought warning, and finally if all of a sudden we run the model and there’s a 5% probability that total storage will be less than 60% in eight weeks, we need to go to the third stage, which is a drought emergency.”

Lauren Hildebrand, the City’s Utilities Director, had the task of describing the various ways the City and County promote water conservation. One new strategy in the future will be to create a series of “block captains” who will encourage their neighbors to conserve.

In response to a question made after the three presentations, Gary Fern said that water usage has generally gone down since 2002.

“People learned another way of life,” Fern said. “They’ve become much more efficient. We’ve looked at graphs of water usage prior to 2002 to now and the use per family has actually gone down quite a bit. It’s started to creep back up, but it’s not nearly what it was back in 2002 or even 1999.”  Population growth also impacts total water usage which is up since the end of the 2002 drought.

Sean Tubbs