State Water Control Board turns down ‘speculative’ water permit request

State Water Control Board turns down ‘speculative’ water permit request
Cranston's Mill Pond in James City County. (Source: Restoration Systems, LLC)

The Virginia State Water Control Board last week denied a proposal by the owners of Cranston’s Mill Pond in James City County to withdraw millions of gallons of water per day to sell to potential buyers, drawing a hard line against what state officials have cast as speculative use of a public good.

The Virginia Department of Environmental Quality “determined that issuing a permit this speculative would set an unwarranted precedent that would encourage the privatization of a public water resource,” Scott Kudlas, director of DEQ’s Office of Water Supply, told the board.

Pond owner Restoration Systems, however, has argued that although it has not secured an end-user of the water, ongoing groundwater scarcity in the eastern portion of the state justifies the awarding of a water withdrawal permit.

“The bottom line is that the need for this permit has been demonstrated,” said Andrea Wortzel, a lawyer with Troutman Sanders who has been representing Cranston’s Mill Pond’s owners, during Wednesday’s water board meeting. “Even as recently as October 2020, DEQ reiterated the need for innovative projects to increase alternative sources in eastern Virginia. This project is uniquely suited to meet that need.”

Conflict over Cranston’s Mill Pond stretches back to late 2016 when the owners first began seeking permission to withdraw large quantities of water from their pond for the purpose of marketing it as a source of water supply for a third-party purchaser.

Reliable sources of water were at the time a hot political topic in eastern Virginia. East of Interstate 95, the primary drinking water source is the Potomac aquifer. This deepwater reservoir serves some 4 million Virginians, almost half of the state’s total population, and for decades its depletion has been a source of anxiety for policymakers.

In 2013, DEQ determined that the rate at which water was being withdrawn from the aquifer was unsustainable and began a four-year effort to slash groundwater permits held by not only large businesses like the paper mills at West Point and Franklin but also municipalities. James City was particularly hard hit. The county had the greatest reliance on groundwater of any public water system in the state, and although it is crisscrossed by waterways, their high salinity makes them expensive to use as sources of drinking water.

It was within this context that Restoration Systems began pursuing the use of Cranston’s Mill Pond as an alternative source of water supply. Located in James City on Yarmouth Creek, the 55-acre impoundment was viewed by its owners as a “cost-effective local solution” to DEQ’s cuts to groundwater permits.

Some state policymakers also viewed the pond as a promising alternative to groundwater. The Eastern Virginia Groundwater Management Advisory Committee, which the General Assembly had established in response to concerns about the aquifer’s depletion, in a 2017 report explicitly mentioned Cranston’s Mill Pond as “an innovative example” of the use of water impoundments as sources of supply.

The Virginia Mercury is a nonpartisan, nonprofit news organization covering Virginia government and policy.