Dry days: Dealing with the drought is serious business
Water. Like air or food, it's a luxury we don't think about until it's gone. Which might be soon. If you're like most people, you haven't ever had to give serious thought to that hot morning shower, or your green, glossy grass or even to cleaning up after a dinner party.
Until now, that is.
Suddenly, with the devastating shortage, even the most mundane tasks flushing toilets, washing hands or clothes– become matters of importance. We all have to change our ways if we're to have this precious resource past Christmas, warns Public Works Director Judith Mueller. In the following pages, locals share stories of how the drought has changed their lives.
The phone's ringing off the hook at Foster's Well Drilling Company. Shane Foster, 24, whose father, Donnie, owns the business, reports the company has a 130-well backlog. Although he says he hears desperation in the voices of families who are making do without water, he has to deliver plenty of bad news. "It could be an eight- to 10-week wait," Foster explains. "I really feel for people, but we're working as fast as we can."
"I've been farming this land since 1949," says 74-year-old Madison County farmer James Aylor, standing next to the tractor he's been using to haul water from a nearby creek. "This is the worst it's ever been." Aylor is digging a new well, and though during the Hook's visit the rig had already drilled down 430 feet 130 feet past the typical depth of 300 feet– the water is still only coming out at a rate of a gallon a minute, not enough to sustain Aylor's 270-acre agriculture operation.
Kevin Cox has spent the last few months designing the perfect rain barrel to collect rainwater from his roof in Charlottesville's Woolen Mills neighborhood. He's rigged an opaque pickle barrel (opacity prevents algae growth) with the right hardware, and he says he's ready to lead Charlottesville's charge to water conservation. "One inch of rain on a 1,000 square-foot roof produces 632 gallons," Cox says, though he's quick to point out that the water isn't sterile and should not be used for drinking.
Her children's bath water is her garden's salvation, says Garnett Mellen, who for the past six weeks has siphoned the soapy water from the tub down into a bucket near her plants. Mellen says the tubing and bucket she uses for her system cost no more than five dollars, and the simple measure has kept her fig trees and lettuce alive through hot, dry days.
Although the city ordered Henry Weinschenk to shut down his Route 29 business, Express Car Wash, early last week, Weinschenk was conducting business as usual on Thursday, September 19, waiting for the citations to roll in while his lawyers looked into possible legal recourse. "If we [car washes] were using 10 percent of the water source, I could understand," says Weinschenk, "but to single us out for near extinction is patently unfair and un-American." (See news story on page 6.)
If the drought rules seem tough in Charlottesville, Gordonsville has it worse. On Friday, September 20– for the second time this month– Gordonsville restaurants were forced to abandon their china and serve food on paper plates with plastic utensils, and at Hook presstime, the order had not been lifted. Mike DeCanio, owner of the upscale Toliver House, says he'll do what it takes to stay open, but there's no denying it hurts business. "People just aren't coming out," he says.
"Are you ready to start making a list?" says nature writer Marlene Condon when asked what she's doing to conserve water. "I wash my hair less often," she says, "and I wear my clothes and use my towels more before I wash them. I haven't washed my car in a year, and I don't always flush the toilet." On the home front, Condon catches all the water from the shower as it heats up and uses that for her outdoor ponds. She also collects rainwater off the roof in a 325-gallon tank and uses it for her flowers. "I don't know why they didn't put the restrictions into place a lot earlier," Condon says. "I really am concerned that it may not end for a long time."
Among businesses, nurseries have been some of the hardest hit by the water shortage. Now permitted to water plants only between the hours of 7pm and 8am, Mary Ridgwell, owner of William & Mary's Flowers and Landscape, says things are tough. "We have 5,000 plants," she says, and nursery employees do all the watering by hand using a hose and a three-gallon bucket. Ridgwell says the city has forced her to shut down two of her four water gardens, and she now trucks in water from her Nelson County Farm. Fortunately, William & Mary's also does hardscapes patios, retaining walls, and the like but the future of the business remains unknown. "It's very scary," Ridgwell says.
When Gordonsville suffered Orange County's highest level restrictions earlier this month, PBM Products, an international company that makes generic baby formula and also owns Route 66 Root Beer, didn't complain about the hardship even when its 60 employees were forced to answer nature's call in portajohns. "We like to think of ourselves as good corporate citizens," explains John Martin, PBM's executive vice president of sales and marketing. Though the restrictions had been dropped back earlier this week allowing the use of indoor toilets water fountains and sinks were still shut down, and Martin says the company continues to follow water rules to "the strictest interpretations."