So the Rapidan River flows, so goes Orange County. The oral history of the river ranges from streams so meager and shallow, one could walk across without dampening a pair of boots, to floods so frequent and massive, buildings needed moving and walls are still stained with mudlines. In between the floods and the droughts exists the Rapidan River most of the time, flowing not exactly swiftly or deep, but steady. Orange County is tied to the river, to the ebb and flow of rainfall, to the varying capacity of a not very large body of water. To say the county’s future is dependant on the health of the river, to it continuing to march down the Blue Ridge, snake through Madison and Greene counties and hug up to Orange and Culpeper counties before finally disappearing into the Rappahannock, is something of an understatement.
The four-year drought from 1998-2002 was something of a wake-up call and something of folklore. A town ran out of water, businesses ran out of water, famously, portable toilets lined Madison Road. While the first three years were below average, 2002 looks like a canyon on water flow graphs, an abrupt late summer drop-off that saw the Rapidan trickling at 10 percent of its normal self. The drought spurred the creation of the Town of Orange’s 45-day reservoir and caused the state to mandate all localities have a water supply plan on file. Orange County’s, compiled by engineering firm Wiley Wilson, complimented the consistency of the Rapidan River, but warned the river could not sustain the county’s predicted level of residential growth—a range in estimates from 40,000 to 80,000 citizens by 2025.
“The quantity of the Rapidan River and the quantity of groundwater in Orange County are relatively consistent, but the number of people relying on these sources of supply will continue to grow,” read the study.
Tammy Stephenson at the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality said the purpose of the study was to “get localities to start planning on the long-term,” adding “things change that you can’t predict.”
The water supply plan claims that Orange County citizens are approximately evenly split between public water customers and users of private wells. Rapidan Service Authority's Wilderness system accounts for a quarter of the entire county’s water intake, while Town of Orange customers use 16 percent, Gordonsville users representing 6 percent and the RSA systems on Route 20 and Route 15 a percent each. Despite all these systems, there’s only one main source—the Rapidan. The river is tapped by the Town of Orange at Spicer’s Mill and then by RSA in Locust Grove. The Town of Orange sells water to RSA for their Route 15 system and RSA then sells water to Gordonsville. Only RSA’s Route 20 system depends on groundwater.
The study stated that Virginia is susceptible to droughts, with historical records showing a drought should occur every 20-30 years. To keep the faucets flowing, in either the event of that next drought or population explosion, Wiley Wilson recommended an impoundment, with the stopgap suggestion of tapping into the county’s various significant groundwater pockets.
Somerset resident Bill Speiden has been thinking about Orange County’s water situation probably longer than anyone. He’s walked across the Rapidan when it was a trickle, calling the 1966 drought the historical equal to 2002, and seen “three 100-year floods and one 500-year flood.” Recently Speiden lobbied for the protection of the Everona Limestone Spur in the county’s ongoing comprehensive plan draft process, characterizing it as the county’s second largest water source after the Rapidan. The commissioners agreed with Speiden, a former commissioner himself, and the current draft plan lists the aquifer among the water sources, aiming to identify its significance as a way of protecting it from contamination and misuse.
But that groundwater source is an extreme contingency plan, millions of gallons of underground water that if called upon would likely preclude any plan C. Speiden believes the county has not sufficiently planned for the next 30-year drought, that the recommendations of the water supply plan are generally dismissed because of dubious population figures and the high costs of impoundments.
“We must learn from history, because if not, we’re condemned to repeat it, to suffer the consequences of not preparing for events,” said Speiden.
At the end of June in 2013, those events do appear far off. The water levels are healthy and high, the rain has fallen throughout the spring and summer, and a USGS groundwater data collection site near Gordonsville depicts an upward trend of the county’s wells as the year grows hotter.
But one day in the future the rains will stop, the Rapidan will slow and crawl towards its end in the Rappahannock. Along the way Orange County will feel parched, maybe for a moment, maybe for a week or more, but Speiden assures it’s coming.
“It’s a crap-shoot,” said Speiden about planning a public resource based on the weather. “Will [a severe drought] happen again? Yes. When? Who knows…Weather is a continuous cycle of good and bad.”
The Town of Orange water treatment plant runs at about 40 percent of its 2 million gallons of water a day capacity and RSA’s Wilderness intake operates at about half its 3-million gallon capacity.
“As far as the intake is concerned, it can handle a lot more than what’s down here,” said RSA General Manager Dudley Pattie.
According to the USGS water flow gauge located where Route 522 crosses the Rapidan, the river is currently flowing at 800 cubic feet per second, and only days before flowed at 1,200 feet per second, well above the daily averages of 250 feet per second from the USGS’ 82 years of data collection at the site.
Gordonsville relies on the Rapidan River as much as anyone else in Orange County, but with a few complications. The idea of a water-independent Gordonsville is hard to imagine. It’s landlocked and owns no significant bodies of potable water. When a faucet is turned on in Gordonsville, that water has already made a considerable journey, pumped from the Rapidan at the Town of Orange water treatment plant and flowed along Route 15 through RSA pipes until it’s sold wholesale to the town.
Gordonsville Mayor Bob Coiner said the town is always looking for the most cost-effective water solution, which right now is a contract with the Orange and RSA set to expire in about a decade.
“We’re always looking, if we signed a contract tomorrow, we’d still be looking,” said Coiner, who expresses a great deal of confidence in the water supply currently afforded by the Rapidan, a capacity that runs with a bit more room following the closing of Liberty Fabrics years ago. “We want to get another contract with Orange. The contract is due to expire in 10 years, which is no time for us to do anything else to get a different water source.”
Among the temporary solutions to Orange County’s Rapidan dependency included in the water supply plan was the proposal to increase the intake level at the Wilderness treatment plant to account for increased development. Pattie said, with the authority already running below capacity, that was unlikely in the near future.
“The regulations say you need a justifiable reason for asking for an increase, and for the foreseeable future I’m not sure we have a justifiable reason,” said Pattie, who suggested, though, that current regulations might be more favorable than future ones. “There’s a chance we could increase it right now, but I’m not sure about in the future.”
The future appears to be steadily arriving to the Route 3 corridor. Walmart opens in two weeks and the board of supervisors knows of at least 600 new housing units expected in the area through a combination of Signature Station’s residential plans and Mansour Azimipour’s retirement community proposal near Lake of the Woods.
“Obviously, depending on how much we decide to put at this end of the county, water is one of the more limiting factors—an issue occurring across the nation,” said District 5 Supervisor Lee Frame, who sits on the RSA board, as well as the county’s economic development authority. “We’ve got a ways to go before we’re hitting hard limits.”
Frame acknowledged there was only one solution to the hard limits—an impoundment, a raw water reservoir that could hold enough water to see the county through any reasonable crisis and account for increased use based on residential or industrial development in eastern Orange County.
“[An impoundment] is one of the things you think about as you begin to get close to 3 million gallons a day,” said Frame. “A reservoir allows you to work through drought periods… to average out the peaks.”
The combination of drought concern and population growth creates something of a moving target of problems for the county. In this year of high water marks and increased development, the taxing of the river becomes more of a concern, as well as what role the county’s water source plays in dictating the types of industries that even consider Orange for business.
“Water will become a serious consideration as we develop our plan for Route 3,” said Frame. “My concern with Signature Station was we were committing ourselves to more water [for residential use], that we could have had for any kind of business or commercial activity. I don’t want to find us in a situation where we’re without….Businesses today are as much concerned about water as any of the other elements; it’s a heck of a lot more fixed than some. You can find more labor and housing and roads; water is in somewhat restricted supply.”
EDA chairman Winston Sides said the water supply for the Route 3 corridor appears safe for now, but he worries about sustaining future growth.
”It’s safe at this point, but I’m not sure how far [this growth] is going to go,” said Sides. “Something is gong to have to be done to produce more water. One way is a reservoir and keeping it filled, but beyond that it’s guesswork.”
Sides said that while he leads a body devoted to tapping into the economic potential of Orange County, he believes the impact on county-wide resources must be considered.
“As much as I am for promoting businesses in Orange County and strengthening the tax base, we can’t go willy nilly about this,” said Sides. “We have to consider the impact on other resources.”
It’s true the Rapidan has enough water. Today it’s flowing at four times its average level. But what responsibility does a locality have in planning for the rare crisis? Speiden believes that is the responsibility.
“The purpose of government is to look after the health, safety and welfare of the public,” said Speiden. “Is water related to health, safety and welfare? Absolutely.”