Water: It’s on the table

The presentation on long-term changes in water supply in Rappahannock County was a bit dry, but the modest crowd at Monday’s Board of Supervisors meeting erupted into spontaneous applause after hydrologist Tim Bondelid closed down his PowerPoint slide show.

Not because his news was cheering — it was not — but because few had managed to make such a sensible and largely comprehensive case before the county’s governing body that (a) the water table here, and throughout the region, appears to be on a long downward slide, and that (b) no one is sure why.

Hence Bondelid’s recommendation — supported by the supervisors and most who remained to hear the hour-long presentation, which included state Delegate Todd Gilbert — that further study is not just a wise idea but a necessity. The board agreed with County Administrator John W. McCarthy’s suggestion that the county pay the minor cost of further data gathering and research necessary for Bondelid, who has most recently worked for Rappahannock Friends and Lovers Of the Watershed (RappFLOW), to continue.

The end result of Bondelid’s study is a water supply report the Virginia General Assembly requires that the county submit by November 2011 to the state Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ).

Monday’s presentation was meant as a status report, McCarthy said. Next month, the Culpeper Soil and Water Conservation District will make a similarly themed presentation to the board, he said.

Bondelid, a longtime Woodville resident, said that from his observation and from anecdotal evidence collected from local residents over the last 10 to 20 years, wells are going dry in Sperryville, springs have dried up around the county and some farmers haven’t been able to get enough water from streams to mix fertilizers.

He noted that Rappahannock is a headwater county, so there is no water coming into it from upstream. Wells represent virtually the entire water source for people, and these are dependent on the underground water table, which is in turn dependent on rainfall and other forms of precipitation.

In rough terms, Bondelid told the supervisors, statistics collected for the last 40 to 60 years show that the water “coming in” to the county is ample to serve the water “going out,” through stream flow and usage.

But “patterns” his research is showing, he said, indicate that the water table is not “stationary” — a term more often heard in the West, where water is more precious and battles over it more public.

“We’re seeing trends away from soaking rains, from more or less continuous snow, especially at higher altitudes. That’s a huge thing. Even if we have periods over which we have the same amount of rainfall, it seems to come in storms, and it runs off quickly.”

After the presentation and applause, RappFLOW founder Beverly Hunter told the supervisors that “what Tim is opening up for us is the opportunity for a public inquiry into what’s happening with our water.

“This is something that everyone can engage in,” she said. “We can have meetings with farmers and landowners to talk about what’s been happening to their water over the last couple of generations.

“In addition to the data,” she said, “this will help create a real story.”

McCarthy said the water study also will be essential when the county begins updating its comprehensive plan within the next year.

“This is, above all, not just a local problem,” Bondelid said. “It’s a regional issue.”

After the meeting, Bill Fletcher, whose Sperryville farm spans many Fletcher family generations, said: “I was reading about when people came up to settle at Montpelier, and at Thornton Hill, they didn’t hack through the wilderness — they came by river.” Modern-day stream flow on the Thornton, which passes through his farm, makes such travel unimaginable, he said.

Del. Gilbert, who took notes but did not speak during the supervisors’ meeting or Bondelid’s presentation, said afterward that “this was a learning opportunity. We will be dealing with these issues, and I’m looking forward to learning more from Tim.”

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Roger Piantadosi
About Roger Piantadosi 537 Articles
Former Rappahannock News editor Roger Piantadosi is a writer and works on web and video projects for Rappahannock Media and his own Synergist Media company. Before joining the News in 2009, he was a staff writer, editor and web developer at The Washington Post for almost 30 years.

1 Comment

  1. On top of Chester Gap, we live at those “higher altitudes” mentioned in the article. We’re at 2000 feet and, accordingly, are obsessive about water conservation. In November of 2007 the well at our guest house went dry. It was less than a year old at the time and had been used very little. It was originally declared “a good well” by the drilling company and we were told it was a well we could “water our grass” from. Of course we would never do such a thing but that was their assessment.

    Coincidentally, two other nearby wells we know of went dry within a month of ours. One eventually recovered but the other neighbor had a new one drilled. We chose to have our dry well drilled deeper; more than doubling the depth. While chatting with the guys on the drilling rig, one of them made a very astute observation. Smiling, he said: “There’s too many straws in the mountain.” He made a good point. Distasteful as it will seem to property owners who are planning new construction up here, the County may need to consider at least a temporary ban on new wells.

    Whether it be in the mountains or lowlands; some thought should be given to the number of “straws” we’re sticking into the aquifer.

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