Trickle down: The Moormans' last gasp?

When mandatory water restrictions went into effect on August 23, some locals wondered why the Rivanna Water and Sewer Authority continued to dump 100,000 gallons of this area's most precious fluid each day from the Sugar Hollow Reservoir into the Moormans River.

Authority executive director Larry Tropea said the water release was necessary to supplement the river's natural flow and that the amount had been reduced from 400,000 gallons because of the drought.

"There's an environmental balance that's got to be struck. If not," Tropea said on August 29, "the Moormans dries up."

Now, it looks like the Moormans is going to dry up.

On September 12, the Authority announced it was ending voluntary in-stream releases into the Moormans and from the South Fork Rivanna reservoir into the Rivanna River, where two million gallons a day had been released, down from eight million before the drought worsened.

For Friends of the Moormans, that was a grim day.

"People don't realize the release into the Moormans stays in the system because it goes into the South Fork Rivanna reservoir," says Donna Bennett. "It's not consumed like when you're watering the lawn."

She calls the decision to stop the release of water symbolic. "The amount was less than one percent of the water being used every day, and the 100,000 gallons really benefit the river." And even under mandatory restrictions, Bennett points out, 11 million gallons are still being used each day.

Nature writer Marlene Condon, who lives near Sugar Hollow, is more adamant. "As long as people are allowed to use water frivolously, I do not feel it is right to deprive wildlife and plants downriver of the water from the Sugar Hollow dam," she says.

John Martin, another member of the loosely organized Friends of the Moormans, compares the amount released into the river to a garden hose, "but the importance for the river can't be minimized," he says. "It wasn't to provide kayaking or hook fishing. It was just to keep things alive."

The Moormans has suffered since a dam was first built at Sugar Hollow in 1925. As water demand increased, less and less water was released into the Moormans. And because the dam is grandfathered, it doesn't have to meet today's stricter state codes that require greater water release.

Both Martin and Bennett applaud Tropea's conservationist efforts. "He's kept it healthier in the past year than in previous years," says Bennett.

And in a press release, Tropea warns, "The depth of the current drought will force us to make many difficult decisions now and in the days ahead."

Martin wasn't too surprised at the decision. "The fact they had to go out and euthanize an already very sick river that's suffered for 10 to 12 years shows how serious the current drought situation is," he says.

He compares the current situation to the 1930 drought, the worst Virginia saw in the last century. "It demonstrates the need for the city and county to get together and decide upon our future water supply plans," says Martin.

Meanwhile, the area's water supply continues to trickle out like the proverbial sands in an hourglass. Charlottesville has taken to issuing a daily water level report on the area's water supply, and on September 13 it stood at 59.6 percent, down from 67.7 percent two weeks earlier.

Even with rain over the weekend, by Monday, September 16, the water supply had dropped another 1.8 percent. "My feeling is that the ground just soaked the water up," says Tropea. "We didn't see much run-off into the reservoirs."

The next round of restrictions appears imminent, and will target businesses, he says.

Even Express Car Wash owner Henry Weinschenk, dealing with the possibility his business could be shut down, doesn't seem to begrudge the release of 100,000 gallons a day into the Moormans. "There are a lot of things that have to be balanced," he says.

The day after the Authority stopped the release from Sugar Hollow, Martin went out to the Moormans River, where there was no longer even a trickle.

"It was creepy," says Martin. "It was so quiet that was the most chilling thing."