Awash: Car washes reopen

If car washes felt tricked back on September 19 when they were ordered to close down because of the drought, Halloween day finally brought the beleaguered industry a treat: as reservoir levels exceeded 70 percent of capacity, car washes were permitted to tap back into the public water supply and resume business as usual.

"It was a big relief," says Henry Weinschenk, owner of Express Car Wash on Seminole Trail. Despite developing a "dry wash" system that permitted his company to stay open over the six-week car wash shutdown, Weinschenk says he lost 60 to 65 percent of his business. He estimates that between $1,000 and $1,500 a day "went down the tubes."

The decision to single out car washes for closure was controversial from the start. After all, car washes are far from being the top water-users around here in 2001 that distinction was reserved for the now-defunct ConAgra on the county system and UVA on the City system.

In September, when the city and county ordered their businesses to close, both Weinschenk and Dave Bascom, general manager at Clean Machine on Pantops in Albemarle County, claimed that they were political scapegoats. But City spokesperson Maurice Jones said the decision was based on need: "It's not political at all," he explained at the time. "Car washes are something most people can do without."

Weinschenk says all the area car washes combined account for just one-third of one percent of the area's water use– far less than other types of businesses, such as all-you-can-eat restaurants.

"If we were using 10 percent of the water, I could understand," Weinschenk said. "But to single us out for near extinction is patently unfair and un-American."

He cited the city's own list of water consumption, using one nearby restaurant as an example: Golden Corral, the buffet a few blocks away from Express Car Wash, used 525,030 cubic feet of water in 2001, compared to Express Car Wash's 410,080 cubic feet during the same period.

Despite his relief over the lifting of the car wash ban, Weinschenk now says his concerns are not completely alleviated. If water levels drop below 70 percent again, could car washes be targeted for another shut down?

Weinschenk hopes that a recent presentation to top city and county water officials by Chris Brown, former head of the water system in San Antonio, Texas, carried enough weight to prevent a repeat of the recent car wash clamp down.

Brown recommended that car washes follow "certification programs," which would guarantee that they adhere to certain standards, including recycling water and maintaining equipment to reduce water waste. In drought situations, certified car washes would then be subject only to the same restrictions that apply to other businesses.

Bill Brent, executive director of the Albemarle County Service Authority, says Brown's visit was more informative than influential.

"We had already decided to revisit the issue at 70 percent," says Brent, noting that certification could prevent future closings of the entire car wash industry. "Hopefully," Brent says, "they won't be impacted as severely as they were this time."

Despite that severe sanction, once the ban lifted, Weinschenk says his business volume "went back to normal pretty immediately." But not everyone was happy about the situation.

Brent says his office fielded "a number" of telephone calls from irate citizens. "There's a strong feeling in the community," Brent says, "that we don't need to be washing our cars. We're still in a drought." And next summer could, of course, be even worse.

But despite the uncertainty of the months to come, Weinschenk feels optimistic: "I hope that everybody has learned a lesson about how to deal with this in the future," he says.


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