Secretary Ward discloses challenges and successes of the Department of Natural Resources as they preserve the Commonwealth’s watershed
By VCPC correspondent Jesse Granger
The Governor of Virginia’s entire state cabinet was going to spend the night in the Shenandoah River State Park. When Molly Ward, Virginia’s Secretary of Natural Resources, had first suggested to the Chief of Staff that they should all sleep in the Andy Guest Cabins at the park instead of renting hotel rooms, she was flooded with queries.
“Will there be electricity?” one member wondered.
“Will I have to bring towels?”
“Do I need to pack my own hair dryer?”
“Which is just a silly question,” said Secretary Ward. “Why would you bring a hair dryer if you think there’s no electricity?”
The 20 or so state cabinet members who were participating in the Governor’s annual Cabinet On the Road, initially complained about staying at the park, but when they finally arrived, they found themselves pleasantly surprised. The Shenandoah River Park is one of Virginia’s 37 state parks. The cabins were small and rustic… and did indeed have electricity. They over looked rolling hills, and a wide winding river, and in the morning, light mist wafted up from the river below, evaporating in the crisp morning air.
“In the end, everybody ended up having a great time,” chuckled Secretary Ward. “It’s an amazing experience. Once you get into the parks, you realize that it’s really cool, but you have to break that barrier. I’m always trying to get someone new to go.”
At the last of the First Tuesday talks held at the Muscarelle Museum by the Virginia Coastal Policy Center (VCPC), Secretary Ward gave a presentation covering the work that is currently being done to help preserve the Commonwealth’s land and watershed. Her presentation addressed many of the large projects the Commonwealth is currently engaged with, but she also admitted that sometimes the most effective push towards getting people invested in conservation is forcing them to spend the night in a state park.
Two primary goals of the Commonwealth is focusing on right now are land conservation and water-quality improvement. When the Commonwealth officially declared the Natural Bridge a State Park this past September, it was a testament to the significant progress they have made towards meeting their land preservation goal. They still face many challenges however, the largest of which is funding. This year 5 percent was cut from the state budget, and a 7.5 percent cut is in place for next year. In addition, the General Assembly recently passed budget language stating that Virginia is no longer allowed to accept financial donations for additional state land.
“It’s a really tough challenge for our state park system,” Secretary Ward explained.
The department is also currently fighting battles to preserve Virginia’s water, and water quality. The Hampton Roads Sanitation District is working on projects to treat wastewater, return it to drinking quality, and then re-inject it into the aquifer. This will keep waste out of Chesapeake Bay, and may help regenerate our aquifer.
“The Coastal Aquifer.” The secretary took a deep breath during her presentation after she uttered those words. “One of the things that I did not know about when I first started this job, and that now keeps me up at night, is the state of the Potomac aquifer. If I had to tell you, this is the biggest environmental challenge that faces all of us, as far as immediate threats. Sea level rise is certainly daunting. Climate change is certainly daunting. This may be worse.”
Virginia is overusing the water available in its aquifers at such a rate that we could run out of clean drinking water within 20 years. In addition, the reduction of the aquifer is doing more than just depleting our drinking water, it is also causing the land to sink, and aggravating problems of sea level rise and salt-water intrusion into freshwater areas. The biggest users of the aquifer’s water are actually paper companies. While the Virginia Code provides that consumption should be given the priority of the aquifer, large industries are currently using it at such a rate that we will run out of it, if their permits are not reduced. A lot of these paper companies, like WestRock, are using this water to bleach paper and containers, items which do not really need to be white.
The Commonwealth is working to combat the problem, but it faces enormous political challenges and push back. Meanwhile, groups like the Sustainable Water Initiative for Tomorrow (SWIFT) project, which is trying to reinject water into the aquifer, face many legal challenges.
Read more about the problems facing Virginia’s aquifer in the recently released JLARC report on Virginia’s water resource management.
If you would like to learn more about SWIFT, and problems facing Virginia’s aquifer, VCPC is hosting its annual conference, Working Waterfronts, on December 2 at the Williamsburg Lodge. In depth discussions on the issues associated with groundwater use will be held. The SWIFT initiative will be featured in the afternoon with an expert panel discussing various aspects of the program. This will present a unique opportunity to learn more about how you can get involved in conserving Virginia’s watershed.