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Shared Vision Planning

James River Drought Preparedness Study

The James River is located almost entirely in Virginia (less than 0.1 percent of the basin is in West Virginia). The James flows 340 miles southeast from the Allegheny Mountains on the West Virginia border to Chesapeake Bay. About a fourth of Virginia—11,000 square miles—is in the James River basin. The major tributaries are the Maury, Rivanna, Appomattox and Chickahominy Rivers.  Workshops held throughout the basin showed that the worst drought problems were in the five-city area, although the Lower Peninsula area and greater Richmond area will probably have problems in the future. The problem is not an uncommon one in the U.S.; population growth is the greatest at the coast, where groundwater pumping can lead to saltwater intrusion.

The primary objective of the James River DPS was to reduce urban drought vulnerability in a five-city region near where the James flows into Chesapeake Bay. The cities, in order from most to least vulnerable, are Virginia Beach, Chesapeake, Suffolk, Norfolk and Portsmouth. They do not use James River water but instead rely on a mixture of groundwater, local runoff, and withdrawals from the Nottoway and Blackwater Rivers. The James River DPS team developed a simulation model of the five city region using the STELLA II® software. 

Of the five cities, Virginia Beach was the most vulnerable. Virginia Beach had no water supply of its own until 1996, when the Gaston pipeline began to carry water from the Roanoke River east across Virginia. Until then, Virginia Beach relied entirely on water from the city of Norfolk, which also supplies some water to the City of Chesapeake. 

In 1986, Virginia Beach initiated voluntary conservation, and in 1991, mandatory use restrictions were enforced. Then, in 1992, when Norfolk limited Virginia Beach’s demand to 30 MGD, Virginia Beach instituted year-round mandatory water use restrictions and a limited construction moratorium. Conservation measures have long been implemented in Virginia Beach, resulting in the very low per capita water use rate of about 82 GPD.

But the amount of “surplus” water available to Norfolk during a severe drought may be less than 30 mgd. In a 1980-81 drought, Norfolk had to institute penalties for water users who consumed more than 75% of normal amounts. The U.S. Navy, a major economic force in this area, at one point owed more than $140,000 in fines. It is thought unlikely that Norfolk would restrict Navy water use before reducing the amount of water transferred to Virginia Beach. The potential impact to the local economy from additional base closures will intensify the pressure on Norfolk to assure reliable water service to the Navy.

James River 5 City Area

Figure 2: James River 5 City Area where Drought Problems are Concentrated

Circles of Influence

Circle A of the James River DPS team was made up of staff from the Norfolk District, Corps of Engineers, Virginia Department of Environmental Quality, U.S. Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations, Institute for Water Resources, the Virginia Water Resources Research Center (Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University), the city of Virginia Beach, the Appomattox River Water Authority, and the University of Washington. The state has begun to use the DPS methods on other river basins. Early interest from environmental groups came mostly from the Isaac Walton League and the Lower James River Association. Circle “B” included about 50 organizations such as municipal water utilities, environmental groups, other state and Federal agencies, industries and industrial groups, and universities.  Circle “C” included a mailing list of about 400 agencies and individuals.

The Planning Objectives for the James River DPS

  • Increase the reliability and level of municipal water service in the lower James basin during drought conditions

  • Increase the population of the nine indicator species along various reaches of the James River during severe droughts

  • Increase water quality reliability in the James River basin during drought

Changes as a result of this DPS

In August of 1993, the five cities and the Corps participated in a workshop in which the shared vision model of the five city region was used to simulate what would happen if the drought of 1980-81 were to happen under today’s water demand and allocation rules. Alternatives including regional management and conjunctive use of emergency wells were examined, but they were rejected in favor of the status quo. As of the date of this report, although it appears unlikely that the DPS will effect a reduction in short term vulnerability, the five cities are considering using the shared vision model to manage droughts collaboratively in the region.

The potential for strategic changes is somewhat greater. The Virginia Water Commission, a group of state legislators and gubernatorial appointees, met on July 22, 1993, to consider ideas including those of the James River DPS team for a more proactive state water role.  National Drought Study representatives offered testimony, and the shared vision model was demonstrated. The Virginia Department of Environmental Quality made a presentation on components that should be included in a state water policy.  At the end of the DPS, most observers believed that the state of Virginia would develop a comprehensive state water policy.  The New Role for the Commonwealth of Virginia might include: 

  • Providing technical and political analysis, or interpreting the needs and perspectives of various water management groups where communication among those groups is poor now

  • Stronger protection of the state’s interest in local and interstate water issues

  • Integration of institutional perspectives across regulatory, supply planning, and use; across Federal and state responsibilities; and across legal, engineering, biological and economic professional perspectives

  • Dispute resolution, either as a facilitator or a regulator. In the regulatory role, the state could readjust power balances among water uses by new, or newly enforced regulation

  • Dispute adjustment—using state law and regulation to support parties whose success in water negotiations would benefit the public

  • Arrangement of technical assistance from outside the state

  • A uniform set of principles for making water management decisions (used with local needs and data to develop solutions appropriate to a community)

  • The provision of people, facilities, or money for planning and data collection.

  • A written state water policy