When a little sprinkle just isn't enough

It’s reminiscent of Chicken Little, only these days the problem is that nothing’s falling from the sky. Or at least not enough. All over the area, officials are sounding the alarm about water shortages, but some residents call the effort too little, too late.

Sally Thomas, chairman of the Albemarle County Board of Supervisors, has done a public service announcement on WINA about conserving water.  

The back page of an insert in the Daily Progress, paid for by the County, is devoted to the seriousness of the area’s drought and offers tips for conserving water. And the Albemarle Smart Growth Initiative has put ads in local papers with a photo of the heading-toward-empty Sugar Hollow Reservoir under the headline, “It’s what you don’t see that’s really scary.”
Almost daily, newspaper accounts detail the effects of the current drought, warning that water restrictions may be imminent. People are talking about the fact that local reservoirs are averaging barely three-quarters capacity at a time when they’re normally full. But others are asking, why have they waited so long?

Marlene Condon, who writes a nature column for the Progress, believes the situation is way beyond tips on taking shorter showers.

“There should be restrictions right now,” she says. “The only way people will change their water usage is if they’re told it’s against the law.”

Condon, who’s written about the seriousness of the drought in her column and in letters to public officials, was appalled recently to see someone hosing down a grocery store sidewalk. And she criticizes local gardening columns that tell people to water their plants because it’s been so dry. “They’re just oblivious,” she laments.

“I’m very frightened about this drought,” Condon says. “Historically, civilizations have collapsed because of droughts.”

The Albemarle Smart Growth Initiative is taking advantage of concerns about the drought “to raise consciousness on the dire situation we’re in with water reserves,” says co-chairman Tony Vanderwarker. The group’s ad includes a coupon to clip and mail to the board of supervisors urging continued funding of a countywide groundwater assessment and a network of groundwater monitoring wells. So far, supervisors have received dozens of the coupons.

Beyond the current drought, the Smart Growth people want groundwater levels factored into land use policy. “It doesn’t make sense to build in parts of the County when you don’t know how much groundwater is there,” Vanderwarker says.

Have officials done enough to publicize the seriousness of the drought? That’s a “dicey thing,” says Vanderwarker. “You don’t want to alarm people, but in hindsight, it looks like we should have done something earlier.”

Over in the city’s public works department, Brad Humphrey thinks that the current publicity is right on target. “We know consumption will increase during the spring and summer. We’re trying to head off damaging effects of the drought before summer.”

To that end, the City and the Albemarle County Service Authority are launching a voluntary “10 percent” campaign to get the public to reduce consumption by that amount. Humphrey says the campaign has hit the streets with ads, PSAs, and signs on Public Works and Service Authority trucks.  

The Service Authority sent letters to all its customers asking for cutbacks to forestall mandatory water restrictions. 

Bill Brent, head of the Service Authority, says there’s no automatic trigger that says when water restrictions will be put in place.  Rain in the past two weeks has taken the reservoirs from 77% to 78.9% of capacity.  And rain is in the forecast. Whether mandatory restrictions will go into effect, he says, is a week-to-week call.

“This is a long-term issue,” says Charlottesville Mayor Blake Caravati, “and we’ve put our money where our mouth is.” Last fall the city asked people to voluntarily reduce consumption, and it’s done a lot of retrofitting of equipment to save water. As a result, the city’s water consumption has remained stable despite growth, according to Caravati.  

Should the County have done more? “Like what, rain dances?” asks Sally Thomas. The Rivanna Water and Sewer Authority has been working on increasing water capacity for a while because that’s a 10-year process, says Thomas. 

“We knew that supply and demand curves would cross in the late ‘90s if we had the worst drought ever, even worse than the drought in the ‘30s,” she explains. “The chances of having the worst drought ever seemed slim. The timing of getting new water is proceeding at a responsible pace.”  

Thomas adds, “It’s hard to make public policy based on extremes.”

With 50 percent of the County using wells, groundwater levels are a concern for many County residents, including Thomas. “Historically, people with wells use less water because they’re aware it’s a limited resource,” she says.

The County will do a special mailing this spring, as well as include water conservation reminders on tax bills that go out in April.

The groundwater situation is one that affects Thomas personally. “Last night, our pressure dropped, and the water filter was dirty,” she reveals.

  And as she knows all too well, those are signs that a well may be going dry.


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