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Column: County drought plan improves, but leaves unanswered questions

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Fauquier County’s updated plan to deal with a drought emergency markedly improves on prior versions. But questions remain as to the supply and equitable distribution of water in the event of a severe drought.

The Comprehensive Drought Management and Emergency Preparedness Plan’s more coordinated approach now includes not only Fauquier’s three incorporated towns — Warrenton, Remington and The Plains — but also the Water and Sanitation Authority (FCWSA), and large agricultural users.

The county’s thousands of individual groundwater wells are addressed for the first time, although not in great detail.

The towns, FCWSA, and a working group composed of numerous stakeholders contributed to this plan, which was approved by the board of supervisors last August as per state mandate.

The plan sets priorities for water use, and establishes communication and response protocols when drought conditions emerge. Emphasis is placed on inter-jurisdictional cooperation, since the county itself has limited enforcement power.

The Virginia Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) and Drought Monitoring Task Force (DMTF) continue to serve important roles.

The designation of three drought stages — watch, warning, and emergency — remain in effect from the county’s 2011 Water Supply Plan.

The declaration of a drought is quite complex, relying on a mix of local and statewide indicators. Since precipitation can be unevenly distributed, other yardsticks are also employed. The National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Palmer Index, for instance, incorporates temperature levels.

Stream flow, lake levels, and well depth also provide commonsensical measures.

As an example of a drought response trigger, when Warrenton’s Airlie reservoir falls to eight feet below normal, the town declares a drought warning. Its drought ordinance (1999) calls this “Condition 3,” mandating reduced water use and surcharges.

These triggers, which vary according to area, will now activate a team consisting of representatives from 18 organizations. The Department of Fire and Emergency Management will co-ordinate the highly regimented response effort.

Some Fauquier residents may be surprised to learn that the county was technically not in drought this past year, despite noticeably dry conditions.

Virginia has in fact not issued any state-wide drought advisories, although Fauquier is by far the most stressed county, with its precipitation deficit at the emergency stage according to the DEQ. NOAA’s Drought Monitor, however, does place the region in moderate drought.

The current drought preparedness plan is frank to admit that in the event of a prolonged drought Fauquier has “very little flexibility to meet supply constraints” other than to drill more wells.

While Germantown Lake and the Rappahannock are cited as potential water sources, infrastructure and authorization will be required. Also, the trucking of water is considered, although not in great detail.

The plan acknowledges other uncertainties as well. Few aquifers have been defined, and they are small. Smaller watersheds, such as those prevalent in the county, are more susceptible even during milder drought conditions.

Moreover, the unevenness of a drought’s impact poses a serious vulnerability to Fauquier. Certain service centers, which are reliant on wells, will be hit harder than others. Yet water sharing between municipalities is not addressed by the plan.

Cheryl St. Amant of FCWSA suggests that the answer to some of the questions may come from a U.S. Geological Survey proposal to assess the county’s water budget. She said that this study could be instrumental in determining “what’s going in and what’s going out” of the county’s groundwater supply.

Fauquier’s planning over the past 50 years has been a model for the rest of the country. Yet the county must stay vigilant of its water risks, especially in the face of development pressure.

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