Drought Concerns Loom

My stream disappeared a couple of weeks ago. I’ve lived here for a couple of years now, and this is the first time that the little brook has simply disappeared. For the second summer running my wife and I have a good-sized little garden, and this year I’ve had to water it every day — very rarely does enough fall out the sky to do the trick.

Josh Barney wrote in the Daily Progress a couple of days ago that the Rivanna Water and Sewer Authority is starting to get worried — water usage is way up, and the rain’s just not coming. The reservoirs were hit for a record 14.3 million gallons on Friday, while they’re down to storing 82% of capacity. Neither is any reason to panic, assuming that we get a nice rainy fall.

I’ve been keeping an eye on stream flow levels, using the USGS’ National Water Information System, and they just keep dropping. The Rivanna is down to 1.13 ft/sec discharge, compared to the 12-year mean for this date of 293 ft/sec. The last time that it was this low was 2002, when we were in the throes of drought. The Moormans is even worse: 0.363 ft/sec, the lowest it’s been this time of year in the eighteen years it’s been monitored. Normally it’d be 143 ft/sec this time of year. Ground water levels keep dropping — it was at 29.75 feet a month ago, and now it’s at 31.25 feet. It’s once it starts dropping below people’s wells that there’s trouble.

The good news is that there’s a hurricane on the way. If we’re lucky, Hurricane Ernesto will weaken over land and dump a few inches of rain on us, which will help to recharge the reservoir. It’ll take a lot more than that over a much longer period to recharge our ground water, but it’d be a start.

08/30 Update: 6″-12″ of rain is forecast to fall on Friday, the remnants of Hurricane Ernesto. I believe I’ll be taking credit for this reversal for fortune.

21 thoughts on “Drought Concerns Loom”

  1. It’s a shame that we wait until there’s a drought or impending drought before we begin to address the necessary concerns of water conservation. A brief snippet on CNBC this morning led me led me to this Yahoo search on water crises. Locally, what will it take for us to think about not just conservation, but simply intelligent use of water on a daily basis?

    What’s more important – water to drink or water to wash the lawn? Are they mutually exclusive?

  2. Many of the trees on my property started dropping their leaves last week. We’re talking about red maples and tulip poplars here – large, mature specimens that should be able to deal with some dry weather and aren’t supposed to drop their leaves for another month or more. Everything is dying.

  3. Locally, what will it take for us to think about not just conservation, but simply intelligent use of water on a daily basis?

    Effective pricing strategies

  4. Jack: tulip poplars are not drought tolerant, and they lose their leaves early when there isn’t much rain in the late summer. They aren’t dying. They are a good drought indicator, and they will be back next year, no problem.

  5. “What’s more important – water to drink or water to wash the lawn? Are they mutually exclusive?”

    They can be, relativley easily. While clean, potable water is essential for health, it’s not necessary for watering lawns, washing cars, or watering gardens. A relatively inexpensive cistern system can capture about 600 gallons from a rainstorm with a decent-sized roof. That water can easily be pumped for whatever needs you have – and water stored in a cistern is 100% exempt from any drought restrictions that may be put into place.

    In addition, there’s “gray” water from laundry and dishwashers. This can be captured as well. You don’t want to drink it, but your car doesn’t care. Neither, unless you’re using particularly caustic cleaning agents, does your garden or lawn.

  6. This is not a big deal. It is going to rain. The reservoirs will be at 100% capacity by the end of September, if not sooner.

  7. UberXY,

    The red maples are more of a surprise. I know that all of these trees will probably leaf out just fine in the spring. But meanwhile everything is looking very dead and most of the smaller shrubs and plants in the woods behind my house have been dying en masse. I’m hoping that yesterday’s downpour didn’t come too late for them.

  8. Four years have passed since the last major drought and little has been done about our water supply. And more and more building that will require more water keeps going on. City and county officials are ostrich-like , the way they keep approving more and more development .
    And we certainly need to cut down on water wastage. One place to start is with all the water used on lawns. Especially that which goes into the street. I don’t know how many times I have seen a sprinkler going, and water going into the street. That should be illegal. And then there are the sprinklers you see the day after a torrential rainfall.
    Really though what is needed is the end to this fixation with “perfect lawns”. These ecologically sterile wastelands are bad for the environment for many reasons. They waste water. They add to the pollution problem when gasoline-powered equipment is used(not to mention the noise). And of course lawn maintenance equipment consumes energy. And all the chemicals used to combat “weeds”(often plants valuable to the ecoystem) and insects end up in our air and water and harm our wildlife.
    I am not saying lawns should be banned, no grass seed allowed. But I would say “no you can’t waste water on them” and “you can’t poison the earth with toxic chemicals for your precious outdoor carpet.
    I am not saying your backyard has to be a wilderness, just that there are alternatives to all that damn grass! Enough to sit on for an outdoor picnic or your kids to play on is fine. In fact, a place for kids to play is about the only justification for having a lawn. And you still don’t need to kill every dandelion or violet.
    To get back to the water issue, its hard to take seriously those public officials who tell me not to take a shower or flush the toilet when they continue to pursue public policies that continue to drain our natural resources.

  9. Four years have passed since the last major drought and little has been done about our water supply.

    I disagree – plans for the 50-year solution are (hopefully) underway. The RWSA reached out to the community in an almost unprecedented way and actually listened to them. Most residents’ behaviors certainly haven’t changed, nor have the UVA students who use an inordinate amount of water.
    But saying that little has been done is unfair.

  10. Waldo: the flow numbers you listed for the Moorman and Rivanna are pretty serious. On a happier note, at Lake Anna, where I have a home, the water is only down about 14 inches from the spring high. In 2002, when we had the big drought, the water was down almost five feet by Labor Day – there were boats tied to docks sitting on dry ground. So the lake is looking really good this year, despite the drought. And if we get the predicted rain this Friday, the lake will be back up quickly to the high water mark.


  11. Re: Greywater – During the last drought I kept all my shrubs and garden alive with grey water – it’s an excelent reuse of the water.

    I didn’t get the cistern system set up but that’s coming.

    Judge_Smails – the reservoirs may come back up, fairly quickly, with surface water, but that won’t bring the water table up, and that’s what folks on wells have to worry about. So do the rest of us since the streamflow doesn’t come back immediately just from surface runoff – for the increase to last more than 72 hours, you’ve got to replenish the groundwater that feeds those streams. If we do manage to get a slow sustained soaking over the weekend, then that will help bring the table back up. I’m crossing my fingers.

  12. So we now know how to get it to rain. Write a bunch of stories about the drought crisis. The results sure came fast, first the local daily paper had something last week, and now the post on here.
    A “rain blog” instead of a rain dance?

  13. It looks like the rain may continue through the weekend, which is great — I was worried I might have to use the hose to wash my lawn. Now I can just get out the soap and let nature do it’s thing.

  14. A followup to the big rains…here’s some realtime tracking data for groundwater, courtesy of the US Geological Survey:


    This is from a monitoring well in Orange County – the closest to our area. As you can see, there was a little blip where the water levels came back up right around the storm. They have continued to drop, however, and that spells drought. Buckingham’s monitoring well shows the same pattern – already below where we were on Friday.

    The folks over in the valley seem to have faired much better.

    We need more. Fortunately, there is more on the way this week.

  15. The thing to remember is that rain may refill the reservoirs. Its the ground water levels we have to be concerned about. I t will take a lot of moisture to do that. I doubt if they are recovered from the 2002 drought.

  16. When I read that the RWSA was “alarmed” at a sudden spike in usage, what do the expect when 20,000 students return to the University and all the dorms and apartments that were lying fallow for the summer are now filled with shower-taking students?

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