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  Drought Fails to Leave County High and Dry

By Tomoko Hosaka
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 12, 1999; Page V07

Water levels in Fauquier County reservoirs and wells have not dipped drastically, despite the record-setting drought that is crippling much of the mid-Atlantic and Northeast, local officials said this week.

Unlike many surrounding counties in Virginia and Maryland, Fauquier has not yet declared a shortage or mandated any water restrictions on residents and businesses. The most visible signs of the dry spell are on the county's farms and ranches, which depend largely on consistent rain and surface water to survive.

Warrenton's two reservoirs, which together hold 303 million gallons of water and serve 3,000 households, are at 71 percent capacity, said Edward Tucker, director of public works for the city. The reservoirs normally would be about 95 percent full. This summer's lower water level, though, is not enough to put the town in crisis mode.

"Right now, the reservoirs are holding up quite well," Tucker said. "We haven't had to take any actions to date."

But town officials say that if rain doesn't fall soon, the reservoirs could drop to troubling levels. Town Council members adopted an ordinance Tuesday night that set guidelines for water restrictions if they are needed. The ordinance outlines four phases of a water shortage and what the town will do during each one, ranging from minimal restrictions in phase one to emergency conditions in phase four.

Council member Samuel Tarr (Ward 4) said he voted for the ordinance out of concern for preserving the town's water availability during the drought. He said a water main break in Winchester last weekend, which depleted reservoirs there, convinced him how precarious Warrenton's water supply could become.

"Our intent is not to scare residents," Tarr said. The town manager "just wanted a plan in place if the need ever arose."

Outside Warrenton, Fauquier's water is drawn from deep bedrock wells. About 4,500 customers in more developed regions are served by 20 public wells. The number of private wells in the county is unknown.

Officials monitor the public wells twice a week, and so far water levels throughout the county are normal, said Barney Durrett, general manager of the Fauquier County Water and Sanitation Authority. But if water levels start falling, the county will start distributing conservation notices. And if levels get too low, mandatory restrictions probably would take effect.

Durrett credits the county's normal water levels this summer to a project undertaken in the early 1990s designed to increase ground water supply in Fauquier.

Through a plan developed by a hydrogeologist, the county now digs its wells after a thorough geological survey that allows wells to maximize water yield over an entire area. Each well also pumps in conjunction with other wells, a move intended to keep them from interfering with each other.

"We've had very good luck with it," Durrett said. "It was quite dry last year, too, but we didn't have any problems."

Although the county's wells and reservoirs are in good shape for now, the drought has hit farmers and ranchers hard. Throughout the mid-Atlantic, crops have withered and feed and drink for horses and cattle have been harder to find. The grapes at local vineyards are just about the only growing things that thrive on the dry weather.

Northern Fauquier is much drier than the southern portion of the county, said Keith Dickinson, Fauquier County's agricultural extension agent. The drought has left many surface water sources in the north completely dry for the last two or three months. Farmers are left to find new sources of water for their cattle or are forced to sell them.

"If we don't get relief soon, many farms will be completely without surface water," Dickinson said.

Both streams that usually provide drinking water to cattle at the Fleetwood Cattle Corp. are dry, manager Gray Coyner said. For about a month, workers have had to siphon water out of a seven-acre lake to fill the streams. The lake has dropped four feet since then.

Coyner says he has sold many of the 1,000 head of cattle simply because he can't care for them in the drought. Everything--water, grass, hay--is in short supply.

"This is the worst I've seen it," Coyner said. "And I've been on this farm 39 years."

© 1999 The Washington Post Company

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