Debate rages over Zion water

County leaders gave their blessing to a massive housing and commercial development in Zion Crossroads after staff assured them there is enough water to supply the area for the foreseeable future.

The Louisa County Board of Supervisors voted 7-0 on Aug. 5 to grant a request from Stony Point Design/Build to rezone 113 acres behind Walmart. The developers want to build 599 housing units and 275,000 square feet of commercial space.

The board backed the plan despite loud opposition from some Green Springs voting district residents who fear their own wells and water supply could run dry.

Some residents said that by straining the county wells’ capacity, officials are putting the welfare of Zion Crossroads at risk. The area’s rapid growth, which includes stores, offices and Spring Creek subdivision, has provided a major source of revenue in the past two decades.

“What are you going to do when Spring Creek residents call and say, ‘We have no water?’” asked Tammy Belinsky, attorney for Historic Green Springs Inc., during the Aug. 5 public comment period.

That nightmare scenario did not materialize on July 20, although many residents found sediment and discoloration in their water when one of the county wells was pumped for 21 hours straight, up to seven times as long as normal. A broken radio communication device was the culprit, according to the Louisa County Water Authority. Water use briefly reached 323,400 gallons per day, far exceeding the average peak level of 195,000 gallons per day. The wells’ capacity is 587,000 gallons per day, as determined by the Virginia Department of Health.

Supervisors insisted a new policy to cap well water withdrawals at 75 percent of capacity will allow lucrative development to proceed without unwanted side effects. The Stony Point development plan, along with recent proposals for housing at Sommerfield Business Park and Crossing Pointe, led the board to craft the policy.

“It cannot be denied that the water required for the [Stony Point] project is well within what is available,” said Bob Babyok, Green Springs district supervisor. Chris Henry, Stony Point’s president, said his project will consume an estimated 280,000 gallons per day when it is completed in 11 years.

Though the board’s vote to support Henry’s plan was unanimous, Supervisor Duane Adams (Mineral district) tried briefly to delay action. He said he thinks the 75 percent cap is too high.

The county expects to have access to water from the James River before the Stony Point development is built out, relieving pressure on the wells. But the James River Water Project, which officials once thought would be finished by 2018, is now unlikely to be complete before 2021. The Monacan Nation has suggested it will sue to block the water project, which would traverse the site of the tribe’s historical capital, Rassawek.

Rae Ely, Historic Green Springs Inc. president, told the supervisors the proposed limit of 75 percent of capacity is based on faulty reasoning, because no one really knows how much water is in the ground.

She cited a July 30 letter written by Nick Evans, a Charlottesville groundwater expert, to supervisors Chairman Toni Williams (Jackson district). Evans pointed to data that shows water in the aquifer underneath the Green Springs area is being pumped from the ground faster than it can be recharged by rainfall.

“The permit numbers for wellfield capacity, which are being used as a baseline for planning future development, appear to be significantly inflated,” he wrote.

Residents have based their concerns on data that shows a drop of some 25 feet in water levels underground in the past decade. Pam Baughman, water authority general manager, said this decline is happening in other parts of the aquifer in Virginia and elsewhere on the East Coast.

“It’s a drop of 25 feet in a 650-foot-deep well,” she said. “There’s still a lot of water there.”

Board members asked Baughman if it would be useful to conduct a “stress test” to try to confirm the wells’ true capacity. Such a test has not been done since the wells were first brought online about 15 years ago, before development in Zion Crossroads accelerated.

Baughman said she was unsure what the test would accomplish, but that she would ask an authority consultant to weigh in.

The authority has two backup wells that could be put into service if the county needs them because of a potential water shortage, Baughman said. Those wells could add another 204,000 gallons per day to the county’s supply, “but it’s the same aquifer.”

Should housing and commercial growth, including the Stony Point development, continue at a rapid pace in Zion Crossroads, the wells could hit the 75 percent of capacity threshold by 2023, said Jeff Ferrel, assistant county administrator.     

While debate continued to rage over well water levels, the Monacan Nation released a statement saying they would appear at the Aug. 13 James River Water Authority meeting at Spring Creek Golf Club to protest the pipeline.

Louisa County is paying about $3 million annually in debt to pay off the cost of the pipeline and water treatment plant while it waits for water to flow.