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Winter Rain

The state's drought czar, David K. Paylor, talks about what lies ahead.


Style: Do you prefer to be called "Drought Coordinator" or "Drought Czar"?

Paylor: I like "coordinator" better. [But] everyone seems to gravitate to "czar."

What misconceptions do you hear from people about what drought means?

One misconception is that if we get a rainy spell, that ends the drought. The current drought that we're in is the result of three winters of below-normal rainfall. And it's the winter rainfall that is most important to the drought. Because that's the primary time, practically the only time, that water can get back to the groundwater table. And it's the groundwater that supplies the flow to the streams during the summer when it's dry. So the biggest part of our problem is because of the lack of winter rainfall. And it's masked a little bit by the fact that the last two summers that we had were unusually wet. ... So that can lead you to believe that we're out of a drought, because even though the agriculture, perhaps, was faring pretty well in those summers, we still had the dry winters and the groundwater table kept dropping. And that's what's causing the stream flows that you see in the James River, the Appomattox River, the Rivanna River, to be so low now.

What are the long-term climate predictions?

I'm not a meteorologist or a climatologist. I can tell you what they tell me, and that is … the forecast, through November, is for below-normal precipitation. But — the meteorologists also tell me that they don't plan their life around those long-range forecasts. So they certainly have some uncertainty about them, and in this case we hope they're wrong.

What would you tell Virginians who believe individual water-saving measures aren't going to make any difference to the drought?

First of all, the localities that have instituted mandatory measures already have seen … 10 to 15 percent reductions in water use. The city of Roanoke — they've been in this business of restrictions for longer than some of the other cities, because Carvins Cove has had trouble refilling for a couple of years now, and they've seen 12 percent reductions. Newport News was telling me just yesterday [Sept. 10] that after the governor's announcement they saw a 10-percent drop in water use. We'll have to wait to see how much of that's sustained, but that's just from limiting the outdoor use. So there's a lot that can be done there.

And if we're also conscious of the ways that we can conserve with indoor uses ... those things can make a huge difference in the overall consumption. Virginia Beach had an indoor consumption program to conserve water for quite a while now, and they actually have gotten their per-capita residential water use down under 60 gallons per day. In many places, it's over 100 gallons per day. So you can make a very big difference by conserving and installing low-use faucets and taking short showers.

What about large companies' water use? How do you negotiate with "mega-users" to effect conservation measures?

We, in fact, met with a lot of the large industrial users [recently] to talk to them about the drought, make sure that they understood, and I will be talking further with a number of them about what they're doing. I will say that it's been my experience that a lot of the large industries, for their own purposes, have had water-conservation programs over the years. There's been a focus on cutting water production at a number of industries. And we need to continue to focus on that. And I've found them very receptive to help. I should say, too, that what the governor has focused on in his current call for restrictions is non-essential uses. And so the industries have been asked to not water their lawns and do the same things that all the rest of us are being asked to do at our houses. They're very happy to do that.

Has there been discussion about making the current water use restrictions permanent?

No, I don't think so, because things can change. We may get some rain. We may get rains in parts of the state and not in other parts of the state. The governor really designed this particular call to be fluid and to allow for exceptions as conditions change. We have written the order to be in effect through June 30, partially just to make sure everyone understands it's possible that this is not a short-term problem. But if conditions change we're going to adjust to those conditions.

And it's very possible that if we need any further action, it'll happen at the local level. In fact, you're already seeing that; Charlottesville has gone beyond what the governor called for in their water restrictions, because their local water supply is at-risk. You've seen the same kinds of things in Orange and Farmville and some other places. We're working with the localities to make sure that we're responsive to their needs, and I'm confident that that's going to work.

Do you support the proposal to declare the James River a surface-management area, such that mandatory restrictions go into effect when certain water levels are reached?

Well, the James River, right here in Richmond, is right now going through the regulatory process to become a surface-water management area [this fall]. It goes upstream, past the state. The significance of that is that all the users, people who withdraw water from the James River, have reached an agreement at certain flow levels, below which they will institute increasing levels of water conservation so that they can be proactive. It's principally a water-conservation tool, and I think it's a very good tool that probably has applications in other part of the state. S

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