Poultry barns on the Eastern Shore. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

Which comes first, chicken farms or the public water supply?

On Friday the state signaled it ranks a sustainable aquifer above concerns about poultry industry costs when the State Water Control Board unanimously voted to require 45 major Eastern Shore chicken farms to look at the shallow Columbia aquifer instead of only deep-water reserves as a source of water.

The decision will not require poultry farms to use water from the Columbia aquifer, but it will require them to assess whether that water could serve as a viable alternative to the deeper Yorktown-Eastover aquifer, a body of water that takes tens of thousands of years to recharge.

“This is a fairly important step we’re taking that’s going to cost people time and money,” said board member Timothy Hayes, who introduced the measure. But, he added, “given what’s at stake on the Eastern Shore and given that (the poultry farms) are using a public resource, I think it’s appropriate.”

The direction went beyond the action recommended by the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality, which only suggested 26 poultry farms be directed to investigate the possibility of using the Columbia.

No chicken farmers spoke at Friday’s Water Control Board meeting, but Virginia Poultry Federation President Hobey Bauhan said before the board’s vote that “despite the increased costs and regulatory burden for producers, the Federation believes these permits are reasonable.” Bauhan later said that even with the added requirements, he was pleased that the permits had been approved, although he had concerns about the additional regulatory burden imposed by the board’s last-minute change.

Chesapeake Bay Foundation Virginia Assistant Director Peggy Sanner said that the board decision was “a move in the right direction.”

“It’s a positive development that the board recognized the importance of ensuring that they have the data,” she said.

Poultry barns on the Eastern Shore. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

Groundwater has been a longstanding concern on Virginia’s Eastern Shore, a narrow strip of land flanked on the west by the Chesapeake Bay and on the east by the Atlantic. Surrounded by salty water, residents of rural Accomack and Northampton counties rely on the aquifer for all of their water needs. At the same time, local geology means that the region bears a higher risk than the mainland of seeing its water supply polluted by saltwater intrusion, a phenomenon that occurs when overuse of groundwater reduces pressure in the aquifer to such an extent that adjacent saltwater can seep into the purer reserves.

Starting around 2015, the region encountered a new stressor: the explosive growth of the poultry industry in Accomack. Chicken farms use water intensively, both for consumption by their birds and for cooling of the houses in summer, practices that have raised fears from locals and state officials about the damage these operations could be doing to the aquifer.

Under Virginia law, any groundwater withdrawals of more than 300,000 gallons per month on the Eastern Shore must get a permit from the state and comply with reporting and inspection requirements to ensure they aren’t using more than their approved share. 

As a general rule of thumb, a farm with about 100,000 chickens will have a water use above that threshold, said DEQ Office of Water Supply Director Scott Kudlas.

Beginning in 2017, in response to complaints and growing recognition that agricultural operations were using more groundwater than previously realized, DEQ launched an effort to ensure that the Eastern Shore’s poultry houses were complying with state groundwater regulations.

Most, it turned out, were not — a finding that led to the agency to issue consent orders to 56 facilities in September 2018.

Since then, DEQ has been engaged in drafting groundwater withdrawal permits for each operation, although five ultimately opted to voluntarily limit their groundwater use to below 300,000 gallons per month to avoid the necessity of obtaining a permit.

The 45 permits approved by the State Water Control Board Friday will not be the last, said Kudlas. At least six more are currently being developed by DEQ. 

Agency analysis found that all 45 met regulatory criteria, including the requirement that no well cause groundwater levels to fall below the “critical surface,” the point at which only 20 percent of the aquifer’s depth remains — although a few wells have been estimated to fall within mere feet of that surface, according to data presented by Kudlas. 

Around the Perdue processing plant, for example, withdrawals brought the level of the Middle Yorktown-Eastover aquifer to just about 4 feet above the critical surface.

Other factors taken into consideration by DEQ included each well’s “area of impact,” or the degree to which it could affect other nearby wells, and changes in chloride concentrations that indicate the possibility of saltwater intrusion. Many permits include mitigation plans that owners must follow if their withdrawals negatively impact neighboring wells.

John Coker, vice chair of the Northampton County Board of Supervisors and chair of the Eastern Shore Groundwater Committee, praised DEQ’s analysis of groundwater impacts but complained that the state wasn’t doing enough to promote use of the less vulnerable Columbia aquifer.

“I’m not against chicken farming. I think it’s great business for Accomack County,” he said. But “I do think it’s time to tell the public we’re near the end of the unlimited water for non-potable uses.”

“Remember,” he added, “we’re talking about businesses that have not been compliant with current laws or are just starting up.”

Earlier in the meeting, in response to a board question, Kudlas noted that DEQ did conduct regular inspections of well flow meters, and that “given the past history with the (poultry) industry, we may make it a priority to inspect them perhaps more often than a normal permit.”

This story has been updated to clarify Bauhan’s reaction to the Water Control Board decision.

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Sarah Vogelsong
Sarah covers environment and energy for the Mercury. Originally from McLean, she has spent over a decade in journalism and academic publishing. Most recently she covered environmental issues in Central Virginia for Chesapeake Bay Journal, and she has also written for the Progress-Index, the Caroline Progress, and multiple regional publications. In 2017, she was honored as one of Gatehouse’s Feature Writers of the Year, and she has been the recipient of numerous awards from the Virginia Press Association. She is a graduate of the College of William & Mary. Contact her at [email protected]