This time last summer, Virginia was in the bone-dry middle of a drought. Peanut farmers mourned goobers, dry-roasted on the vine. Homeowners were forbidden to water sun-scorched lawns. And all over the state, municipalities squabbled over water rights like dry-gulch gunslingers.
The rains have come this summer, filling reservoirs and allowing localities to remove unpopular water restrictions that had been enforced in some areas for nine months. But the recent downpours have provided only temporary relief, according to state water officials, who warn that this may be a full decade of Water Wars.
"To be brutal about it, the drought ended a little bit too early to bring home and necessity of solving long-range problems," said Dale Jones, a director with the Bureau of State Water Control. "I'm afraid it's going to take massive investment . . . and that runs counter to what the general philosophy is out there."
Jones' pessimism is echoed by state Del. James H. Dillard (R-Fairfax), who warned recently that, despite a $300,000 study, there is little chance the Virginia Legislature will resolve the state water supply issue soon. Dillard, former chairman of the state Water Study Commission, blamed public apathy and turnover on the commission for a "tragic . . . stalemate."
Water issues now have to be resolved by the courts "on a crisis-by-crisis basis," Dillard said, adding that without a change in state water laws "the courts will have no choice but to deny the needy and reward the greedy."
The water scare in Virginia last year was shared by most of the United States. Sinkholes, crop failures and water rationing competed with foreign coups and government scandals for headlines. Water resource experts have warned of future shocks in antiquated water systems, continued industrial growth and ground water pollution put this country further at the mercy of fickle weather.
"America is living on borrowed water and borrowed time," David Zwick, national director of the Clean Water Action Project, told The Washington Post this month. "While energy shortages dominated public attention during most of the 1970s, a coming water crisis has crept up close behind."
The solution to that water crisis, experts say, will require billions of dollars and regional cooperation between utility companies and local governments. In Virginia, that cooperation has been slow in coming. Except for Northern Virginia, where last summers's drought was handled with uncharacteristic cooperation, the water shortage has provoked bitter feuds and convoluted legal sparring.
"The technical problems are the easy part. The political, social and institutional problems are more difficult," said Jones, who fears current public attitudes about water will retard any move toward solutions. "Water has been provided with such excellent service, at such a cheap price, for so long that people have taken it for granted."
For more than a hundred years, Norfolk has been one of the major water barons in Tidewater Virginia. The city currently supplies water to 650,00 customers in Norfolk, Virginia Beach and the nearby naval bases. But two severe droughts in the last five years, coupled with rapid commercial development in Virginia Beach, have left Norfolk water officials poor and fighting.
"There are about four different court cases," said John Kemper, utility director in Norfolk. "It's been a maze of legal battles, agreements and disagreements. Water is a very emotional issue right now."
The latest disagreement concerns fines Norfolk imposed on the Navy and Virginia Beach for exceeding allocation limits last summer. The allocation plan, the first imposed in Virginia, was extremely unpopular, particularly with those who were fined. Fines totaling more than $1.8 million were levied during the nine months of restrictions.
For six months, both Virginia Beach and the Navy refused to pay $186,000 in fines. Then, earlier this month, those fines were excused by an independent city appeals board set up to arbitrate water disputes. Outraged Norfolk officials are calling for an investigation of the decision, and other water users who already have paid fines are demanding rebates.
"It's been a headache," said Kemper, who is leaving his job this month after nine years with the city-owned utility. "I won't miss the irate phone calls."
The water problems in Norfolk elicit little sympathy from C. M. Moyer, Manassas city manager. Before taking the job in Manassas in 1973, Moyer held the same position for five years in Suffolk, a city that bought its water from Portsmouth. Like Norfolk, Portsmouth is a Tidewater water baron that lately has fallen on drier times.
"Now that Portsmouth and Norfolk are experiencing difficulties, they want to go out and get more water from the areas they've been gouging," said Moyer. "They have never over the years been known for their charity, and that's created some animosities down there."
Moyer can afford to be frank. Manassas has one of the largest to its size. Fairfax County, for example, serves 600,000 people with an 11 billion-gallon reservoir at Occoquan. Manassas serves only 4,500 people from a resevoir that holds 5.7 billion gallons.
"I wouldn't exactly characterize us as being like an Arab oil sheikdom," said Moyer, "but I think the people of this area are assured of water from now on."
During last summer's drought, Manassas and Falls Church, another small city with a proportionately immense water system, won friends by supplying needed water to areas such as Fairfax County. The groundwork for that cooperation was laid two years ago when 11 Northern Virginia jurisdictions signed a regional agreement to be, as one local official joked, "water buddies."
The mutual assistance in Northern Virginia, an area with a statewide reputation for intramural feuding that reached a high-water mark during Metro subway funding fights, has been hailed by local water officials as extraordinary.
"We have seen othing but cooperation," beamed James Warfield, a spokesman for the Fairfax County Water Authority, which serves most of the county, Alexandria and the eastern part of Prince William County.
The Fairfax Water Authority was not particularly polite to other utilities during the early 1960s, when it swallwed 22 independent water suppliers to build its water domain. Some local officials fear that a few years of drought and system failures could mean a return to a more partisan past.
Moyer, sitting one one of the richest water supplies in the area conceded that Manassas would be hesitant to sacrifice its treasure to a consolidated Northern Virginia water system.
You have to forgive me for having somewhat parochial views," said Moyer, "but I would look very closely at anything that would spread out our water. I know what it's like not to have water."
Finding new water sources can cost a small fortune in surveys and fees for geological consultants. In the town of Appomattox, however, the modern-day method of finding water is done with a forked stick.
Harold T. Nash, superintendent of public works for the historic Southside town of 1,500 uses the ancient art of divining to find underground water. Put a forked branch of peach, wild cherry or dogwood into his hands and Nash will follow its point to water.
"Your mind gives off electricald waves that, combined with the stick, causes the stick to pull down when you're over water," said Nash, who has used his dip stick to find four of the five underground wells owned by the town and about 15 private ones.
Before Nash took over the water prospecting job in Appomattox, the state Health Department advised the town where to dig wells.
"We drilled four dry holes when the Health Department told us where to drill," Nash recently told the Associated Press. "Now the Health Department only gives a general area where we can drill."
The state Health Department enjoys no better a reputation in the small, Loudon County town of Hillsboro. For more than a year, Byron Farwell, the mayor of Hillsboro and its 130 residents, has been fighting the Health Department over the purity of the town's spring-fed water system.
"My job is to harass the citizens as little as possible and fight off the bureaucrats," said Farwell, who defied the state agency despite the threat of a $10,000-a-day fine.
The Health Department was alarmed by the amount of bacteria in samples of Hillsboro's water, which flows from the wooded side of a hill into a small stone house guarded by a black snake, and then is fed through glass-lined pipes to 26 households.
Last year, a team of testers sent to Hillsboro found the water system to be free of bacteria. Despite that finding, state regulations required that Hillsboro pay for legal advertisements in three issues of a county newspaper warning residents that some water samples indicated a problem.
Farwell refused, arguing that not everyone in town reads the local newspaper. The mayor offered to put notices on the town bulletin board that, he said, would be far more effective in Hillsboro, where residents pay an annual water fee of $2.
The feud continued until earlier this year, when a Loudoun weekly newspaper printed the state health notices free of charge. Last week, Farwell indicated that his regard for the Health Department remains as stated last year.
"Our health is not endangered and our welfare is threatened only by Department of Health bureaucrats," the mayor said.
At the start of this summer, before the rains washed the water crisis temporarily away, Virginia Beach seemed a town obsessed with water. Motels were trucking in water to fill swimming pools. Wells were being dug beside dozens of beach hotels. And everywhere were signs urging visitors to conserve. The owners of the Mardi Gras Motel tried to win support for their water saving efforts with this poetic message in the lobby: "Our Well's Gone Dry, Our Supply is Low. So Please Don't Waste Our H20. "
Water problems created at least one politicl casualty in Virginia this year when the mayor of Boones Mill, 77-year-old John Murray, resigned rather than continue fiddling with the town's failing water system.
"I've gotten to where I'm weak and just can't do it any more," said Murray, who installed the pipes for the town's water system 31 years ago. Murray has had to repair the system ever since.
His resignation, explained Murray, was designed to force the town council to hire someone new to patch and monitor the system.
"It wasn't too bad to start with, but it's become right smart of a problem," he said. "Anything that's old, it gives out, just like I did."