Regional water fight takes a turn, as state steps in
Published 10:30 am Monday, December 18, 2023
It’s time to go back to the drawing board, when it comes to supplying water in this region. And for that, you can thank the Virginia Water Control Board.
Earlier this year, Virginia lawmakers signed off on a rarity. As part of the state budget, Prince Edward County gained permission to run 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, currently served by Crewe. Except this came without the permission or request of Nottoway or Crewe officials.
In fact, Crewe officials pointed out any loss of water customers to Prince Edward would seriously affect their town’s budget. And so on Thursday, Nov. 30, the Virginia Water Control Board made some changes. In Virginia, cities and counties have to follow what’s known as the Local and Regional Water Supply Planning Regulation. It spells out what is and isn’t allowed, in terms of selling water to other areas. Now, after that Nov. 30 meeting, all cities and counties in designated river basins have to work together for any expansion. In this case, Prince Edward, Nottoway, Lunenburg and Brunswick counties are all in the same basin.
That means even with state approval for expansion, Prince Edward can’t simply run lines into Nottoway County or anywhere else in the basin. Instead, they have to work with Nottoway and the Town of Crewe on a plan. As such, Prince Edward County and the Town of Crewe have now opened talks on expanding water to the region.
Crewe Town Manager Jay Scudder said the talks between the localities are in the initial stages.
“They’ve talked about the potential of Sandy River as a reservoir for a regional water source,” Scudder said, noting that they also talked about Blackstone’s water source.
BREAKING IT DOWN
What it comes down to, Scudder said, is the financial economics between what makes the most sense, “if we’re going to do something regionally with long term sustainability and water.”
Prince Edward County Administrator Doug Stanley said they have had ongoing discussions with representatives of Nottoway and its towns, but have not yet engaged Brunswick or Lunenburg counties about the new process. The four counties make up the local watershed planning area under the new regulations.
“Prince Edward County has been a longtime advocate for addressing our need for a reliable public drinking water system on a collaborative regional basis,” Stanley said. “Larger, regional water systems tend to be less costly and more reliable than smaller, localized systems.”
Prince Edward made a serious but unsuccessful effort to form a regional drinking water authority a decade ago, he noted.
“Currently, we are reengaging with our neighbors in Nottoway to explore collaborative solutions to our common water supply needs,” Stanley said. “The new water supply planning regulations create a framework to further those discussions with Nottoway and other counties in our region. We welcome that opportunity.”
Scudder said it is good to look at the region’s water supplies to make sure that everybody has adequate water.
“Sustainability is always something that’s definitely worth looking into,” he said. “I think the way that they have grouped those, those regional water designations, just make sense based on the water resources that are available in the area.”
SO WHAT CHANGED?
The planning process has been around since 2003, after a drought that raised concerns over water supplies across the state. However, the prior regulations allowed communities to either plan regionally or on their own.
“The new regulation updates the water supply planning process, but the process is not new,” Stanley said. “Local and regional water supply plans have always played a role in the permitting of water supply projects.”
But he added that it is too soon to tell what effect, if any, the changes will have on the approval of projects going forward.
Scudder agreed because no state guidance has yet been provided to localities on the amended regulations.
Now it’s worth pointing out that while counties have to work together on planning, that doesn’t mean they all suddenly get control of any specific project. For example, the Sandy River Reservoir in Prince Edward remains under county control. They can still expand it but any project beyond the county’s borders has to be agreed upon as a region.
“We are optimistic the new regulations will spur continued discussions about developing a regional water supply system that is built around the Sandy River Reservoir,” Stanley said.
Scudder said the most important thing with supplying water is the ability to do so affordably.
“That is the bottom line,” he said. He said all four counties are rural ones with towns that are the hubs in each.
“I think you have to look at what people can afford and the rates of water that they can afford,” Scudder said, noting that building a new treatment plant in Prince Edward County could cost $50 to $60 million or more. “That’s a very important part of the overall equation.”
He said Crewe has a 1 million gallon per day treatment plant that is currently producing about 450,000 gallons a day. This means it has capacity to produce an additional 200,000 to 300,000 gallons daily.
With the new regional planning requirement, he said it makes another move that allows the state to “run water wherever it wants.”
“It’s totally shocking to elected officials and people that work in this industry all over Virginia,” Scudder said. He called this legislation both shocking and unprecedented.
“We’re talking about public utilities here,” he said. “I mean, how would Dominion feel if Appalachian Power all of a sudden had some legislation that said they could come in and take 10% of their customer base.”
He questioned if this could then open it up where one other jurisdiction could come in and take another jurisdiction’s water customers.
“I mean, what the heck?” Scudder said. “That seems like it does just the opposite of what this regional planning thing is supposed to do.”