In the face of persistent dry weather, Loudoun supervisors yesterday agreed on the need to study how the county's ground water supply will hold up during future droughts as more and more wells are dug to support growth in western Loudoun.
Meanwhile, the board continued mandatory water restrictions for eastern county residents and businesses served by the county's sanitation authority.
The impact of the drought, now in its second year, dominated the board's first meeting after its summer recess with discussions about the status of the county's water supply--for residents served by county and town supplies as well as those with private wells--and the effect of the dry weather on farmers.
"The drought we are suffering has made all of us realize the importance and fragility of our water supply," said Eleanore C. Towe (D-Blue Ridge), who requested that the Land-Use Committee begin monitoring ground water levels and considering ways to protect diminishing wells from increased pollution. "This is something that has needed to be done for years."
For the short term, recent rainfall has helped replenish Goose Creek--a key source of water for Loudoun--and cooler temperatures have decreased demand but the situation remains serious, said Dale C. Hammes, general manager for the Loudoun County Sanitation Authority. He said he expects to recommend that the restrictions, which took effect Aug. 1, remain in place for at least two more months unless the county experiences significant rainfall, such as that from a tropical storm.
"We're facing another three months of historically dry weather, and we cannot reasonably expect the drought to be broken until late November," Hammes said yesterday. "We need to sustain those lower levels of demand until we get out of the woods."
Loudoun was the first county in the Washington area to begin implementing mandatory water-use restrictions--which include limits on washing cars, watering lawns and serving water in restaurants--on the 30,000 households and businesses served by the Loudoun County Sanitation Authority.
Average water use has been cut by about 24 percent and has continued to drop, Hammes said. But he cautioned that the county's rainfall over the last year remains 11 inches below average and that parched streams are far from recovery.
Sheriff's deputies have issued 58 verbal warnings but no citations, according to Deputy Ed Pifer, Loudoun sheriff's spokesman. Violating the restrictions can result in a fine of as much as $500.
Board members yesterday focused their attention on the county's more than 21,000 wells, saying they worry that if wells are running dry now, the situation will be far more serious during any future droughts because there will be more wells and higher demand. So far this year the county has received 63 applications to replace wells that have run dry, county officials said. Last year they received 40 in the same period.
Chris Ambrose, a real estate agent who lives near Aldie, said he and several neighbors worry that their wells will give out. "I'm losing volume now and we're concerned," said Ambrose, 37. "You don't get as much pressure, and you've got some grit."
Ambrose said the concerns extend beyond the current drought. A developer has purchased a nearby 45-acre farm to build a new subdivision, and people living in the area worry about the future of their water supply.
Supervisor James G. Burton (I-Mercer), who described a "feeding frenzy" of development in western Loudoun, said the county needs to consider water availability when making zoning decisions that will affect development. "I think it is time to begin protecting the supply that is there," Burton said.
Also yesterday, Loudoun supervisors said they will seek further relief for farmers, the segment of the population hit hardest by the drought. Loudoun County has been declared a federal agricultural disaster area, making farmers eligible for low-interest loans.
Gary Hornbaker, Loudoun Agricultural Extension director, said he estimates that county farmers have lost more than $20 million because of withered crops and livestock sales. The damage to pasture and hay crops alone is estimated at $9.5 million, he said.
In an emotional moment, Supervisor Helen A. Marcum (R-Catoctin) broke into tears as she talked about the damage she has seen firsthand on the farm she runs with her husband in Lovettsville. The Marcums have seen their crops wither and have had to sell livestock because water supplies have run dry.
Marcum said an elderly farmer stopped by to visit her recently, and they sat in her farm office. "He looked at me and said, 'Helen, where do we go from here?,' " Marcum said. "I haven't been able to answer that farmer's question. . . . Traditional farming is on life support. Folks, the plug is being pulled."
Hornbaker said that his office is helping local farmers seek aid from state and federal governments but that there is little interest in the low-interest loans offered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture as a result of the county's disaster designation.
"Farmers are not interested in incurring more debt," Hornbaker said, adding that most county farmers aren't eligible because the program requires that they be unable to borrow from a commercial lender.
The board asked Hornbaker to continue seeking programs to help farmers, and Marcum said the county also should consider offering financial support.
"It's important not only to give the farmers some relief now . . . but to give them the financial stability to continue," she said.