What Does DEQ's Drought Watch Mean?

Nov 6, 2017

This fall the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality, or DEQ, issued a drought watch for much of the WMRA listening area, and a number of localities from Winchester to Charlottesville encouraged — or mandated — their residents to conserve water. WMRA’s Christopher Clymer Kurtz reports.

If you’ve gotten to hear this recently, I’m guessing you’ve soaked it up.

[The sound of October rain]

This fall Virginia has faced drought conditions in many areas. Early in October the DEQ declared a drought watch for three of the state’s 13 Drought Evaluation Regions, in addition to one that was already in effect.

Scott Kudlas is the director of the DEQ’s Office of Water Supply.

SCOTT KUDLAS: It’s fairly unusual. If you look at the rainfall numbers that we’ve seen for the calendar year, we are pretty much at near normal or slightly above rainfall in many places across the state. However, much of this rainfall fell during a period between the late springtime and early summertime, and since August we have been seeing significant periods without any rainfall at all.

The dry conditions and DEQ drought watch played out differently in different localities.

In Winchester, which is in the Shenandoah drought evaluation region, officials issued a drought watch back at the end of September, said Perry Eisenach, the city’s public services director.

PERRY EISENACH: We get our water from the North Fork of the Shenandoah River, and the flows had really started dropping quite a bit, so that’s why we issued the drought watch. This is actually the second year in a row that we’ve done that. But before that, we hadn’t done that for quite a while.

Winchester recommended a variety of voluntary conservation suggestions for residents, from limiting time in the shower to leaving grass clippings on lawns, to hold soil moisture.

Harrisonburg didn’t issue an advisory. In a press release on October 23, it said that its water sources were “able to meet the needed supply” — but it encouraged residents to conserve when possible. Public Utilities Assistant Meranda Lokey said that release was mainly to let people know about the DEQ’s broader concerns.

MERANDA LOKEY: We just wanted to release the information to say, you know, there are areas in Virginia that are experiencing drought. It’s always good practice to not leave your faucets running. You don’t have to always be watering your lawn. We want to be good stewards of the environment.  

At the end of October the city’s water supplies from Dry River/Switzer Dam and North River were reportedly well above levels of concern. In the Switzer Dam,

LOKEY: We’re way over. We’re not even near our watch, and our first one is a voluntary trigger, so that would be, we would ask you, if you are a citizen here, we would say, “We would like you to volunteer to conserve water.” That isn’t even to a mandatory trigger.

Still farther south in the Shenandoah region, Staunton Director of Public Works Tim Sliwoski said he was keeping an eye on supply levels. Staunton Dam, he said, was recently down about four and a half feet, but he’s seen it as low as down 15 feet, and in his 20 years there he’s never issued conservation measures. The city also relies on a natural spring source, Gardner Spring, which he said was keeping up.

Lexington is not in one of the DEQ’s regions under a drought watch, and didn’t have any rationing efforts in place.

In Charlottesville and Albemarle County, though, in the Middle James region, things seemed more dire. The Rivanna Water and Sewer Authority reported that its South Fork Rivanna Reservoir was full at the beginning of August, but down to less than half capacity by the end of September. The Authority’s executive director William Mawyer said that drastic drop was due to a combination of lack of rainfall, community water use, some leakage around water release gates, and possible inaccuracy in a gauge measuring inflow.

Mawyer said that all along, the three reservoirs that serve the region had a lot of water in them collectively — but they are not yet connected with pipes that could balance their levels, something that is anticipated as part of the community water supply plan. The Rivanna Reservoir, which suffered that drastic water level drop, is the sole provider to one of the area’s two water treatment plants, so the area was first requested to voluntarily conserve water, and later, placed under mandatory restrictions.

WILLIAM MAWYER: We’re pleased that we’ve gotten the recent rains, and that the reservoir has refilled, and the community has responded. So that’s been a big help. Going forward we’re going to have a lot of lessons learned, a number of lessons learned that we can apply and help us stay out of the mandatory restrictions in the future, we hope. 

Mawyer said that the Rivanna Water and Sewer Authority anticipates that mandatory water restrictions will continue until “high water levels have been sustained in the reservoir for an extended period.” Charlottesville’s director of utilities Lauren Hildebrand said last week that recent rainfall has helped substantially.

LAUREN HILDEBRAND: We want to make sure it’s sustainable, so mandatory water restrictions are still in place until a little time is past.

That could be a matter of weeks or a couple months. Looking further ahead, Scott Kudlas of the DEQ said what we don’t need is a second dry winter.

KUDLAS: We need at least a normal winter. Last winter was very, very dry, but then we got above normal precipitation right at the end of the recharge period in the late winter, early spring, you know, that might help again, but what we’ve seen in the past is when we have more than one winter in a row that has a low recharge period, it makes it really challenging in the summertime.