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Tuesday, Sept. 12, 2023

We are right now experiencing a drought in central and northern Virginia. In Charlottesville and Albemarle County the situation is not critical, but the weather is dry enough that our water authorities are asking us to voluntarily conserve. That means doing things like limiting the amount of water you give to your lawn and outdoor plants, holding off on washing your car and not filling up outdoor pools.

Taking these precautions now could head off problems later in the year, if this drought continues. Although the Rivanna Water and Sewer Authority, the Albemarle County Service Authority and the City of Charlottesville Utilities Department all say they’re confident that they can weather it.

“We strategically manage our reservoirs and water treatment plants during the winter and spring in preparation for the dry summer and fall seasons,” Bill Mawyer, the Rivanna Water and Sewer Authority’s executive director, said in a statement. “We are confident there is an adequate supply of drinking water to serve our community for the foreseeable future.”

A lake surrounded by trees without leaves.
A view of the Ragged Mountain Reservoir, one of the reservoirs that supplied Charlottesville’s drinking water, in winter. Photo by Anna Creech/CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 Credit: Anna Creech/CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Regardless, conserving water, especially during summer and fall, might be a good habit for us to get into. According to the latest climate science predictions, droughts are going to become more pervasive and severe in the coming years.

This spring, NASA released a study showing the frequency and severity of droughts all over the world has steadily increased in the last 20 years, in time with a rise in earth’s temperatures. The scientists who conducted the study predict this trend will continue.

“The idea of climate change can be abstract,” Matt Rodell, the study’s co-author and a hydrologist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, said in a statement. “A couple of degrees warmer doesn’t sound like much, but water cycle impacts are tangible.”

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It might seem counterintuitive, but the other thing rising global temperatures causes is more frequent and intense flooding. The reason has to do with the types of storms and rainfall we get. As the planet warms, dry seasons extend and heat draws water from the soil. So we have drought. When the rains do come, the storms are far more intense and severe, dropping huge amounts of water in short periods of time. So we have floods. You can read more about the science behind the phenomenon in this story from PBS.

We are experiencing this drought and flood cycle right now in central Virginia, and we will continue to experience it. The last time the city of Charlottesville imposed a mandatory water use restriction because of drought was in 2017. Our last “drought of record” (which is another way to say record drought) was in 2002, a year into NASA’s study. 

Much of the United States experienced record setting droughts last year, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The Center for Climate and Energy Solutions maintains a drought monitor for the United States where you can see drought conditions in real time.

Our local governments are actively preparing for the coming climate challenges. In anticipation of more intense droughts, the three water authorities mentioned at the beginning of this newsletter are expanding our local water storage capacity. They built a new dam at Ragged Mountain Reservoir in 2014 to increase the amount of water it can hold. They’ve renovated water treatment plants and plan to create new water piping systems that will both increase water storage and “improve infrastructure resilience.”

On the other side of the climate challenge, local entities are also getting ready for the more severe floods coming our way. As part of the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative that Virginia joined in 2021, the state charged power companies for their greenhouse gas emissions. Some of that money went to local flood preparedness. Here in Charlottesville and Albemarle County, we have four preparedness plans funded by RGGI. You can read more about those plans and the future of RGGI in Virginia in this newsletter from a few weeks back.

A map of Virginia with counties and cities outlined shows several areas in different shade of green. Each area colored green has a dollar amount in a bubble next to it.
Credit: Courtesy of the Virginia Energy Efficiency Council

How Youngkin’s plan to withdraw Virginia from the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative affects us

We are working to expand our newsroom to cover things like climate change, as well as other topics. As we grow, are there types of local climate related stories you’d like to see? Click here to send us a message and let us know.

Thanks for reading,

Jessie Higgins, managing editor

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I'm Charlottesville Tomorrow's managing editor and health and safety reporter. If there’s something you think we should be investigating, please email me at jhiggins@cvilletomorrow.org! And you can follow all the work we do by subscribing to our free newsletter! Hablo español, y quiero mantener a la comunidad hispanohablante informada. Si tienes preguntas o información que debo saber, por favor, envíame un correo electrónico a jhiggins@cvilletomorrow.org.