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"Our Threatened Water Supply: Challenges to Water Sustainability in Virgnia"

Report from a conference convened by the Commitee on Stewardship of Creation
St. James the Less, Ashland, Virginia
September 11, 2010

 

Every day as we draw water from our faucets we expect clean and abundant water. Too few of us realize the increasing demands that are being placed on our usable water supply, obtained from surface water supplies and aquifers far below the ground surface. We know from daily news reports that in other parts of the world water scarcity is in crisis; yet little to nothing is reported that water supply is an emerging problem here in Virginia.

On Saturday, September 18, 2010, the Diocesan Committee on Stewardship of Creation convened a conference and workshop at St. James-the-Less Episcopal Church in Ashland, Virginia to discuss water scarcity in Virginia, particularly in the Coastal Region constituting much of the area encompassed by the Diocese. 

The Speakers first demonstrated how water shortages worldwide have reached tragic proportions. They demonstrated by example how here at home clear signals have been arising that predict a future scarcity condition that conservation alone will not cure.

The principal presentations at the conference were by Frank Fletcher, a Hydrogeologist and Fellow of the American Geological Society now living in the Northern Neck of Virginia; Scott Kudlas, Virginia Department of Environmental Quality; and, Dudley Rochester, formerly of the University of Virginia, a Committee Member, a Retired Medical Doctor and Respiratory Specialist … our Keynote Speaker.

During the Morning Session, the presenters brought to attention the strains on regional water resources resulting from growing water demands. The Committee presented to the Churches a List of Water Conservation Tips, describing that list as a worthy Church Ministry, but a list which should not be considered as the total solution to water supply and sustainability issues.

During the afternoon, participants in the Conference broke into smaller sessions that were facilitated by other specialists and leaders of non-profit safe water and water conservation associations that are active in the area served by the Diocese. The attendees were asked to consider, then translate what they heard during the morning session into lists of new and fresh ideas. The challenge was to seek new solutions that could result in larger conservation and supply results. At a later afternoon session, all reconvened to study each other’s lists, reported hereinafter.

BACKGROUND

  • The extended drought, 1999-2002, called policy-makers’ attention to Virginia’s lack of preparedness; growing dependence on finite water resources; and, policy-makers’ uncertainty about the scale of the problem.  In the aftermath, the Commonwealth established a new regulatory structure to monitor and approve permitting for surface and groundwater withdrawals. As of the Conference, approximately two-thirds of the Coastal Plain was encompassed in groundwater management districts. However, a number of withdrawals from ground water and surface water are grandfathered or unregulated even in the areas that are regulated, and the tools used to monitor and model ground water utilization in Virginia have not been updated significantly since the early 1990s.
  • While groundwater is the principal water source for fresh water in the Coastal Plain, there are no federal mandates to monitor and preserve ground water supplies as sustainable resources.
  • Current efforts and funding for data collection relevant to the sustainability of groundwater and aquifer resources are for the most part dependent on state funds. Because of limits on state and local budgetary resources to fund monitoring and modeling, Virginia’s capacity to assess the health of ground water resources has actually declined.
  • Federal, state and local agencies responsible for regulating water resources sometimes have conflicting perspectives and no mandate to coordinate or to resolve policy conflicts. The decentralization of water regulation in Virginia further limits data development and sharing and limits the effectiveness of the agencies’ support for development of policy by the General Assembly.
  • Even with the limited data available from existing collection points, the Conference learned that ground water in parts of the Coastal Plain is being drawn down significantly more than projected in available computer models; and that, subsidence of aquifer sources in some areas along the Fall Line has already occurred as a result of the greater drawdowns. Any subsidence in the source cells for an aquifer limits its capacity to replenish.
  • In some areas within the Diocese, authorities have ceased issuing building permits because water supply is insufficient for the proposed construction.

NEEDS

  • More data is clearly needed to grasp the magnitude and urgency of the threats to sustainable water resources and to direct resources to address those threats effectively. Abundant water is under serious challenge; Virginia can no longer operate on an assumption that surface and groundwater supplies are limitless.  Frank Fletcher contended that Virginia must soon shift to greater reliance on nontraditional water sources, e.g., tertiary wastewater recycling, desalination, and others that have the potential for providing a sustainable supply for our future needs.
  • This shift requires research, development, and funding.
  • The changes necessary to achieve sustainable water supplies cannot be accomplished solely by measures such as shorter showers and rain barrels. 
  • Only institutional bodies possess the expertise, the finances, and the collective manpower to bring about a new water supply paradigm that is in scale to the emerging demands on scarce supply.

SMALL GROUP SESSIONS

  • The small group sessions explored the ethical and spiritual implications of how we as individuals, communities, societies, and institutions can address the current and anticipated future struggles for a sustainable water supply. 
  • The afternoon sessions reflected on the shifts in thinking necessary to achieve a new paradigm. The conservation practices that households adopt can help give texture to thought as spiritual practices and can give force to leading edge technologies for water saving to help them gain wider market penetration.
  • The significant changes to define a new paradigm require an informed electorate, legislative action, government reorganization, corporate support, and changes in agricultural and industrial technologies.
  • Each group came up with its respective list of action points for dealing with water issues.  When the groups reconvened, their action plans were consolidated to identify major points for an action plan based on scientific knowledge and the responsibility of committed Christians to care for God’s creation.

 

ACTION POINTS

  • DIOCESE:   Enhance Shrinemont resources for stewardship inspiration and education; publish articles regularly on moral dimensions of environmental stewardship in The Episcopalian; make environmental stewardship a regular program component in annual Councils.
  • PARISHES: Model mindful water use through technology retrofits and good stewardship practices; include an environmental stewardship component in parish retreat programs; make publicity for stewardship initiatives a regular feature in parish newsletters.
  • HOUSEHOLDS: Follow the regulatory agendas of water resource agencies; discuss stewardship issues with family and with friends; express views as citizens; support sympathetic advocacy groups; and take steps within homes to support mindful stewardship.
  • COMMITTEE: Members should engage in outreach to parishes as speakers and information and networking resources; the Committee website should continue to develop as a Diocesan portal for information material to stewardship of creation by publicizing relevant church resources: age-appropriate Sunday school curricula, videos, book lists, blogs, etc.

CONCLUSIONS

  • At its meeting in May, the Diocesan Committee on Stewardship of Creation will consider further the action points identified during the Conference; progress as reported by individual Churches, since the Conference; and, what further additional actions should be considered by the Committee and the Diocese to help address the emerging threats to sustainable water resources in Virginia.
  • The Principal Message resulting from this Conference ; which best addresses the seriousness of Water Supply and it’s Sustainability is that ‘Fresh’ and ‘Big Ideas’ are needed, which must be followed by ‘Real Action’ by everyone throughout the State and Nation.
  • This is an Every Person and Every Faith Challange.

 

A list of ‘Water Conservation Tips’ that Churches and Households can implement; and, Program Materials supporting the presentations of the Speakers are posted on the Committee Website.