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Special Report: Drought of '99

  At Goose Creek, 'The Water's Just Not There'

By Tomoko Hosaka
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 15, 1999; Page V07

Hundreds of feet above the tiny town of Markham, at the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, a weed has found life in the middle of a once-bubbling spring.

Down a bit farther, grass has taken over a stream that once carried water from the spring to a pond.

At the edge of the pond is another stream, where water used to flow down the hill to the Goose Creek.

All of that is dry now. Not even a trickle. Like the dozens of other small springs and streams that empty into the Goose Creek, the water is gone. There is nothing feeding the creek, which snakes east to a reservoir that supplies water to Fairfax City and half of Loudoun County.

What's left of Goose Creek out in Fauquier County are small pools of standing water. And even those are evaporating as the region's dry spell lingers.

"If you think that's the water the dentist is supposed to use in Leesburg, that's a scary thought," said Martha Toomey, a Markham resident and director of development at Indian Pipe Technical School, a nature camp scheduled to open in the foothills next year.

When officials visited Goose Creek near Leesburg in June, the water flowed at nearly 26 cubic feet per second, a relatively normal rate. A month later, the water flow dropped to just seven cubic feet per second. They'll take another measurement in a week or two, and Eugene Powell doesn't expect good news.

"As the drought continues, the water's just not there," said Powell, an environmental engineer with the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality. "It's gone. The creek's going to be considerably lower now."

The designers who developed the Goose Creek water system in the late 1950s planned for possible low water levels by damming the tributary, Beaverdam Creek, to create a storage reservoir. During times of low flow along Goose Creek, water from Beaverdam is released to help fill the main reservoir. If there's normal rainfall, Beaverdam is not used.

Goose Creek Reservoir has a capacity of about 300 million gallons of water. Beaverdam Reservoir can hold more than a billion gallons. The water is pumped into a treatment plant run by Fairfax City, which then sells it to the Loudoun County Sanitation Authority for distribution to 30,000 homes and businesses.

Even though mandatory water restrictions in eastern Loudoun have reduced usage by more than 20 percent, the drought has forced water officials to dip into its storage reservoir to meet demand. Taking water from Beaverdam is not something they like to do, but at this point they have no choice, said Dale Hammes, general manager of the sanitation authority.

With no rain at all, the storage reservoir will last 130 to 170 days.

"The bad news is the condition we're in," Hammes said. "The good news is that we're almost through with the worst part of the summer. But if the drought continues, we'll probably be forced to consider more restrictive conservation measures. We need help from Mother Nature."

If the reservoirs aren't recharged by autumn rains, Loudoun officials could decide to ban all nonessential outside water use. Currently, those who live at odd numbered addresses can water lawns with hoses on odd-numbered days of the month, and those who live at even-numbered houses can water on even-numbered days. And residents must use a )container no larger than three gallons for other sorts of watering and outside washing.

Loudoun residents soon will have access to water sources besides Goose Creek. New pipelines scheduled for completion this fall will allow Loudoun residents to use water from the Fairfax County Water Authority, which pumps its water from the Potomac River.

Also, the county's sanitation authority just finished building a 2.5-million-gallon storage tank along Route 659, which increased tank storage capacity by 50 percent, Hammes said.

Back in Markham, at the headwaters of Goose Creek, Loudoun County's water woes are the least of Cliff Hoerer's problems. Along with Toomey and founder Susan Leopold, Hoerer is helping develop the outdoors camp, which will teach children about the native ecosystem on 220 acres of old farmland.

On Thursday morning, he stared sadly at a dried-up pond that he wanted to use to show kids frogs, snakes and salamanders. Without a pond there was nothing he could do, he said, as he stood amid wilting wildflowers and browning trees.

"It's as if the entire reason for our school doesn't exist anymore," Hoerer said.

© 1999 The Washington Post Company

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