Sandy River controversy puts neighboring counties at ods

Published 3:08 pm Tuesday, September 19, 2023

The notice showed up in the final version of the General Assembly’s budget. Neither Sen. Frank Ruff or Del. Tommy Wright can say where it came from, as both claim they didn’t ask for it to be added. Regardless, when the state budget passed, Prince Edward County gained permission to expand the Sandy River Reservoir, running a water line into neighboring Nottoway County, providing water for operations like the Nottoway Correctional Center and the Piedmont Geriatric Hospital, as well as the town of Burkeville. 

On the one hand, the decision could help Prince Edward. On the other, it has the potential to cause serious problems for the town of Crewe in Nottoway, which up until now has provided water for these groups. Losing that revenue source would have a serious impact. But overall, what are the plans for the Sandy River Reservoir expansion? What would this mean for Prince Edward County? 

What is the Sandy River Reservoir? 

First, let’s explain what we’re talking about. The Sandy River Reservoir is a man-made lake, encompassing some 740 acres just east of Farmville that opened in 1996. And now, after decades of planning, Prince Edward County officials are ready to put that reservoir to full use.

That means by as early as 2025, the county could begin extracting millions of gallons of water each day from the reservoir to not only fulfill the water needs of Prince Edward County, but also places across the region.

“The growth and development of Prince Edward County — and, I’d say, our neighboring communities — is hindered by the lack of a reliable regional public water supply,” Prince Edward County Administrator Doug Stanley said. “When we look at the extraordinary economic growth and development happening in other parts of Virginia, I think we asked, ‘Why (not) us?’ Our region has almost all the ingredients, including a talented workforce, safe and livable communities, a solid transportation network, and a favorable tax environment.”

But, Stanley said, the one ingredient missing from turning this region into an economic development hub is plain and simple: water.

“We are hearing from valuable economic development prospects that they can’t come here until we have an adequate water supply,” Stanley said. “This is not just a Prince Edward problem, but really, it’s a regional problem”

One company that has looked to build at Heartland Innovative Technology Park — where there’s room to build up to 1.3 million square feet — is a data center. Because of all the heat generated from the computer equipment, data centers require large amounts of water for cooling — something that is not even available to them until Sandy River Reservoir is finally put to use. This data center in particular could require up to 1.5 million gallons of water per day, Stanley said.

How much could it handle? 

While that might seem like a lot of water, the county — when it tried to get this project off the ground a couple decades ago — sought to withdraw up to 8 million gallons of water a day from the reservoir. Now, Stanley says, the request being made to the Commonwealth’s environmental quality department will be much lower — somewhere in the ballpark of 5 million gallons per day.

“That’s part of the permitting process we get through DEQ,” Stanley said. “They want to make sure that we would only be pulling out what we call the ‘safe minimum yield’ that would not impact flora and fauna downstream.”

This includes not only the stretch of Sandy River all the way to its meeting with the Appomattox River, but also the reservoir itself. Fishing and recreation is important for reservoirs like Sandy River’s, and the need to withdraw even millions of gallons of water a day will not be allowed to impact that.

How much water comes out of the reservoir each day will depend on individual needs, Stanley said. It could serve as an area’s primary source or even as a backup, like during the severe drought that afflicted the area in the early aughts.

“It’s my understanding that the Appomattox was basically dry below the town’s intake,” the county administrator said. “It puts the town of Farmville in a bind. We’d like to be the kind of long-term backup water supply for Farmville, which means we’d be the backup water supply for Longwood University. So, we see that as providing redundancy and additional capacity to meet the long-term needs of the town as well.”

Burkeville wants Sandy River water 

And there are also other potential customers, like the Nottoway Correctional Center and Piedmont Geriatric Hospital in Burkeville. While a spokesman for the Virginia Department of Corrections says there’s currently no plans to expand Nottoway Correctional, the state’s Department of General Services took the lead in searching for a new water source for the facility. No one has been able to say what drove that decision, only that Prince Edward’s planned expansion was of interest. 

Town officials from Burkeville, meanwhile, are a bit more straightforward. In addition to the two projects mentioned above, Burkeville itself is interested in becoming a benefactor of water being piped out of the Sandy River Reservoir.

Brian Weltch, Burkeville’s mayor, told the Farmville Herald in an email that his community has long sought a viable, long-term and drought-resistant drinking water supply option that can not only supplement the town’s well system, but also help fuel economic growth in the community.

But one key variable that has stirred up some controversy most recently is the fact Burkeville is not in Prince Edward County, but instead Nottoway County. Some critics have said water originating from Prince Edward should stay within the county, and should not be used to supply neighboring communities.

Weltch, however, says it’s important to look at the bigger picture.

“Burkeville also supports the Commonwealth of Virginia as a regional economic driver and employment center,” the mayor said. The town “currently provides multiple support services to state-owned facilities in Nottoway, and town residents are employed at these critical state facilities.”

Because of that support, Weltch and his administration supports any water supply alternative the commonwealth “deems most appropriate to maintain the long-term sustainability and growth of these regional employment centers, including development of the Sandy River water project.”

‘You’re not even in the conversation’ 

In the end, whether it’s in Prince Edward County, or Nottoway County, or even Cumberland or Buckingham counties, economic development in one place is good for everyone everywhere, Stanley said.

“Louisa (County) made an official announcement of an $11 billion investment by Amazon” to build a pair of data centers there, Stanley said. “So certainly, there’s the potential out there for significant amount of investment. The good thing about Louisa? They had water availability to help facilitate that. So, again, if you don’t have utilities available, you’re not even in the conversation.”

Editor’s note: This is the first in a two-part series, detailing the plans and challenges surrounding the Sandy River Reservoir expansion. Coming up next, we’ll take a look at the money side of the project. How much will it cost to expand to places like Burkeville? Where’s that money coming from? And what would a change like this mean for the town of Crewe, which currently provides water to some of these potential customers?