Water flow study could be vital for Clarke

Posted: March 12, 2013

The Winchester Star

BERRYVILLE — A report on low flow rates in the Shenandoah River’s South Fork has Clarke County supervisors wondering just how the data might be used in the future.

At its February meeting, the Board of Supervisors accepted a copy of the report from Jennifer Krstolic, a geographer with the U.S. Geological Survey, and Mark Bennett, director of the U.S.G.S. Virginia Water Science Center in Richmond.

Twenty years in the making, the study outlines how much water can be withdrawn from the Shenandoah River during low flow periods, like extended summer droughts, while still allowing fish and aquatic creatures to have a place to live.

Bennett noted that a groundwater study in Clarke many years ago was the spark that led the U.S.G.S. to a region-wide stream flow study.

“It’s interesting, where you end up,” he said.

The U.S.G.S. used records of water levels going back more than 80 years. There has been a gauge on the South Fork, at Front Royal in Warren County, since 1931 and at Lynnwood in Augusta County since 1930.

The data is important, said County Natural Resources Planner Alison Teetor, because Clarke County is “at the end of the food chain” where the river is concerned.

The study offers scientific backing for just how much water can be taken from the Shenandoah without damaging the resource, Teetor said.

Supervisor John Staelin said the study was important to Clarke because of all the upstream users who have first claim on the river water.

Many jurisdictions get permits to withdraw water from the Shenandoah, he noted.

“You can’t influence the state permit process without numbers to back you up,” Staelin said. “There may be a ton of water in Augusta County, but if they take it all, we have a problem.”

Staelin said the study will be needed as the Valley continues to grow and more jurisdictions eye the river for needed water.

The state has asked all jurisdictions to draw up water plans for the next 30 years. Using those plans, local governing bodies should get an idea of how much water will be needed and can compare it to the river’s capacity at its lowest flow.

Krstolic said she would like to see the data used as a drought awareness tool.

She suggested that the jurisdictions that depend on the river for water should come together to “start a dialogue” and figure out ways to agree on drought status, and when to implement conservation measures, before a significant drought occurs.

“It shouldn’t take a drought to make something happen,” Bennett agreed.

There may even be ways to use the data to predict future drought conditions, he added.

In the future, scientists may be able to check the river flows in March and tell where the levels will likely be four or five months in the future.

“It would give localities extra time to plan, Bennett said, in order to put water withdrawal limits in place.

Chairman Michael Hobert said he’d like to see the data turned into some type of action plan.

Staelin suggested that the county consider a protective overlay district for the river.

If the county can protect its entrance corridors through such districts, or its Civil War historic resources, there should be some way to draft a protective ordinance for the river, Staelin said.

With discussions about using the treated water from wastewater treatment plants for crop irrigation, and other issues, Staelin said less water may be returning to the river in the future, which could affect flows downstream.

The Shenandoah is a resource, Staelin said. “We’ve got to start managing this better.”

Attending the meeting at the Joint Government Center were Chairman Michael Hobert and supervisors John Staelin, David Weiss, Beverly McKay and Barbara Byrd.

— Contact Val Van Meter at vvanmeter@winchesterstar.com