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Dwindling drinking water supply prompts effluent idea to serve paper plants

by Renss Greene

Where does our drinking water come from?

The answer for people in the Northern Neck—and along much of the East Coast—is the Potomac Aquifer. U.S. Geological Survey maps chart the aquifer from South Carolina all the way to New Jersey. It is the deepest and freshest source of water along the northern Atlantic coast.

And, according to experts in the area, it’s being destroyed.

The Potomac Aquifer isn’t just used for drinking water; it’s also the source for water used in production at the RockTenn paper mill in West Point and the International paper mill in Franklin County. And these plants are big users.

Dr. Frank Fletcher of Reedville, Fellow of the Geological Society of America and creator of GroundWaterVirginia.org, has been studying the state of our water supply for some time. “They [the West Point plant] are now using about one-fifth of all the groundwater that’s withdrawn in the coastal plain in a given day. If you add the Franklin plant into that, it comes up to almost half,” said Fletcher.

A publication on his website, citing a report by the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ), points out that the West Point plant alone draws 93% of all groundwater withdrawn in King William County; King William draws more water than all other counties in the Northern Neck and Middle Peninsula combined.

“The water was easily available to the paper company, it was right below their feet, and it only took conventional technology to get to it,” Fletcher explains. “The company had good internal reasons for going that way. What’s turned around since that time is that the era of cheap and abundant groundwater is passing.”

The Potomac Aquifer is not an inexhaustible source of clean water, Fletcher explains. The “artesian water level” is the height to which water will naturally rise if a well is drilled into the aquifer. The aquifer is under pressure, so that level can potentially be above ground level, even though the top of the aquifer itself can be hundreds of feet below the surface. Simply put, if the artesian water level is higher than where you’re standing, if you drive a pipe into the aquifer, water will come out of the top of the pipe without any need to pump.

According to a publication on Fletcher’s website, the artesian water level near the West Point plant has fallen from 30 feet above sea level in 1914—when the West Point plant first opened—to 180 feet below sea level in 2011. Pumping too much water out of the aquifer also allows salt water to enter the drinkable water supply, a problem already seen by rising salinity at some test wells along the eastern seaboard.

What does this mean for people living here? Drinkable water is more difficult and expensive to get to. Even worse, this source of water will eventually run out. Although the aquifer is slowly refilled, as Fletcher puts it, “We’re drawing dollars out of it, and putting pennies in. It’s not going to come back.”

When the artesian water level drops below the top of the aquifer, the porous earth that allowed that water storage collapses, permanently destroying that part of the aquifer, he explained.

Enter Pete Mansfield of Urbanna.

Mansfield, a retired engineer and member of the Middlesex County Board of Supervisors, says he has an idea that can help relieve the burden on the Potomac Aquifer. In a recent presentation to the Virginia State Water Commission, Mansfield proposed an alternative to pumping from the aquifer for the West Point and Franklin plants. His idea would see cleaned water from waste-water treatment facilities, called “effluent” and clean enough to drink, pumped to the paper mills instead of discharged into the Chesapeake Bay.

“I lived in Florida, where they have been doing it for 60 years,” Mansfield says. “There’s no new technology. This was not an original idea of mine, I’m just trying to copy something that has worked somewhere else.”

An illustration from his presentation shows a proposed pipe running from the Yorktown and Williamsburg water treatment plants, along Interstate 64, and up to the West Point plant. Eventually, he said, he’d like to get both the West Point and Franklin plants using effluent instead of aquifer water.

Dr. Jim Pyne, chief of the Hampton Roads Sanitation District’s Small Communities division, also spoke before the State Water Commission. The Hampton Roads Sanitation District operates the waste-water treatment plants Mansfield hopes to use.

“The people of the Commonwealth have paid a lot of money in the last decade, and are still paying a lot of money, to take a lot of water, clean it up to a fairly clean state, and just throw it away,” Dr. Pyne said in a telephone interview. “We think that water is a resource for the Commonwealth.”

All this comes as the West Point plant applies for a 10-year permit to continue pumping water from the aquifer at a rate of more than 8 billion gallons per year. Mansfield hastens not to vilify the West Point plant, though: “West Point has been wonderful,” he says, and points out that they draw from the aquifer because that’s where the state has told them to get their water.

RockTenn could not be reached for comment, but Robin Keegan, a spokesperson for the company, told the Richmond Times-Dispatch that “there are many factors to consider.”

Read the rest of this story in this week’s Southside Sentinel at newstands throughout the county, or sign up here to receive a print and/or electronic pdf subscription.

posted 08.21.2013

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