Drought Watch

By: Melissa Reynolds
By: Melissa Reynolds

Water is still running, but that doesn't change the fact that we're in a drought.

"We've never seen water levels this low before," Dave Nelms, USGS Groundwater Specialist says.

This well is in McGaheysville, it's one of two in the Valley that are used to test the groundwater...here it's 10 feet lower than it's ever been.

"It's important because in the Valley it's a major supplier of home water supplies," Nelms says.

There are 270 of these wells across the state; most are only tested once a month, is that enough?

"You're not going to know if you're going to lose your water supply-it is one well so it's monitoring a small area, but it gives you a general idea," Nelms says.

This is a real-time well. A measurement is taken electronically every three hours, that means more up to date information and less chance for problems.

In Pennsylvania there's a real time well in every single county with the most up to date information about the drought, in Virginia there's only two in the whole state.

The closest one is in Clarke County.

"We talked to the county and told them it would be beneficial to convert this to a real-time and they gave us the funds," Nelms says.

"Is it possible Rockingham could get a real time gage? Sure all they have to do is contact us," Nelms says.

In the meantime, to measure the drought, the USGS relies on the number of wells that have run dry, which is now more than 4-thousand across the state, also other wells and stream flow gages.

Stream flow and ground water are one system...this gage can show if there's a problem with either one.

"The streams tend to peak right after a rainfall and then quickly go down and that's telling you the groundwater supply is low," Nelms says.

There are five of these gages in the Valley...both them and the wells can be monitored on the Internet.

"Really what people will want to look at is how this well responds in the winter and we will also look at the precip. and snowfall," Nelms says.

All that matters is keeping the groundwater up.

"Just as long as it doesn't go below the bottom of the well so we can't measure it," Nelms says.

Rockingham County is looking into getting a real-time well. Which is good news. But, in the meantime, you can go to va.water.usgs.gov for the most up to date information.

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Virginia Drought Impact

Impact on Public Water Systems

  • Mandatory water restrictions are in place in most of the Commonwealth due to Executive Order #33. Only southwest Virginia, parts of northern Virginia and the Eastern Shore are not included in the order.

  • Reservoir and stream levels that support public water supplies have improved slightly since late August. The town of Orange is anticipating a water shortage emergency within two weeks. The town has made emergency plans to pipe water about 20 miles from a location near Culpeper using a surface laid pipeline.

  • The Albemarle/Charlottesville and Portsmouth public water supply reservoirs are approaching 50 percent capacity.

  • Ground water-based public water supplies in Amherst, Appomattox, Augusta, Botetourt, Caroline, Clarke, Fluvanna, Fauquier, Loudoun, Nottoway, Shenandoah and Warren counties have reported dropping ground water levels or reduced yields.

  • Impact on Surface and Ground Water

    • Streamflows in the Shenandoah, Potomac, James and Roanoke River Basins are generally below the normal range of flow observed during September but above monthly minimum levels.

    • Streamflows in the Chowan, Kanawha, Big Sandy and Tennessee River Basin are in the normal range of flow. However, the low levels of ground water storage will speed the decline in these streamflows without additional precipitation.

    • Ground water levels continue to decline. Levels of large reservoirs such as Smith Mountain Lake, Kerr Reservoir and Philpott Reservoir continue to decline despite variances to required minimum discharges. Lake Moomaw is currently operating under a reduced release that is supplying less than one half of the flow measured in the James River near Richmond. Streamflows over the majority of the Commonwealth are well below levels expected in August. Record minimum flows for the period are expected at streamgauges in the Shenandoah, Rappahannock, York, James and Chowan River basins.

    • Virginia Department of Health issued over 2,900 private well replacement permits for private water supply wells that have failed since July 1. Average water conservation savings at large public water supplies of six to 12 percent have been reported since the implementation of the Governor's Executive Order #33 on Aug. 30.

    • The Department of Environmental Quality met with large users on the Roanoke River on Sept. 19 to begin discussions regarding allocating the limited flow in this river.

    Impact on Agriculture

    • Scattered rainfall during the last month did little to improve the agricultural conditions across the state. Without significant sustained rainfall soon, the agricultural situation in Virginia will continue to deteriorate creating major problems for farmers over most of the state. The lack of subsoil moisture may prevent the planting of many fall crops.

    • The number of federal drought disaster designation requests submitted to Gov. Mark Warner more than doubled between August and September, from 30 to 73. The requests come from 60 separate counties, with 13 submitting a second request for additional damages experienced since their original submissions.

    • The U.S. Secretary of Agriculture has approved primary disaster designation for 10 of the localities (Bedford, Brunswick, Buckingham, Cumberland, Fluvanna, Goochland, Louisa, Orange, Prince Edward and Rockbridge counties) and denied disaster designation for six localities (Augusta, Bland, Nelson, Page, Rockingham and Wythe counties) whose loss of production did not meet the 30% federal requirement.

    • Thirty-eight contiguous counties were also approved for federal assistance and eight localities that received primary designation have also received secondary designation.
      The Governor has requested federal designation for 40 other localities whose approval is still pending. Damage assessment reports (DAR) are pending from USDA for 17 localities (Albemarle, Alleghany, Amelia, Amherst, Campbell (2nd request), Charlotte, Chesterfield, Culpeper, Dinwiddie, Essex, Fauquier, Isle of Wight, Louisa (2nd request) Prince George, Pulaski, Scott and Warren counties).

    Impact on the Environment

    • Light rainfall during September has helped to minimize short-term wildfire activity across the state. In spite of the much-needed rain, drought indices remain higher than normal throughout the Commonwealth and statewide conditions are again favorable for increased and extended wildfire activity.

    • The Department of Forestry has cancelled all prescribed burning projects in support of the Governor's executive order and is urging other concerns to follow suit.

    • Due to significant drops in stream and lake levels throughout most of the state, access at boat ramps and fishing piers is increasingly limited and recreational opportunities are reduced. Of the Department of Game and Inland Fisheries' 225 public boat access sites, 131 still support normal launching, 71 report low water but may be used, 19 report no water on ramp but hand launching of small boats is possible and four are closed for repairs.

    • There has been some increased fish mortality at one Department of Game and Inland Fisheries' trout hatchery and fish stress levels have increased at all hatcheries. Flows at trout rearing facilities have decreased by 20 to 40 percent in the past eight weeks. Though there have been no drought-related fish kills reported in public waters, private pond owners have reported very low levels and some ponds have dried up resulting in loss of fish.


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