By Stefanie Jackson – As the Exmore town council has grappled with the decision about how it will provide residents with sewer service for decades to come, there have been many discussions about costs, but few about the possible impacts on the water supply.
Exmore is currently considering two choices: the public option, the Hampton Roads Sanitation District (HRSD), a political subdivision of the Commonwealth of Virginia, or a partnership with a private company, Aqua.
HRSD traces its earliest history as far back as 1925, when the Virginia Department of Health condemned a large shellfish area in Hampton Roads, leading to discussions about the construction and operation of a public sewer system.
The Virginia General Assembly created the Hampton Roads Sanitation District in 1940.
HRSD boasts a “rich legacy of protecting public health and the waters of Hampton Roads through effective wastewater treatment,” according to its website.
Its vision is that “future generations will inherit clean waterways and be able to keep them clean.”
HRSD has a new project called the Sustainable Water Initiative for Tomorrow (SWIFT).
Before the SWIFT project began, much of HRSD’s treated wastewater was discharged into the Elizabeth, James, or York rivers.
Now HRSD sends one million gallons of water per day through additional rounds of treatment at its SWIFT facility, in Suffolk, Va., resulting in a product that meets drinking water quality standards and can be returned to the Potomac aquifer, Hampton Road’s primary source of groundwater.
The Eastern Shore of Virginia depends on a sole-source aquifer for fresh water, since it’s surrounded by the Chesapeake Bay and Atlantic Ocean, and it has little to no freshwater streams, rivers, or lakes.
The sole-source aquifer actually consists of two aquifers: the shallow Columbia aquifer and the deep Yorktown aquifer.
But HRSD has no immediate plans to recharge the Eastern Shore aquifer.
HRSD would take over ownership and operation of the Onancock wastewater treatment facility, which has excess capacity, and serve Nassawadox, Exmore, Melfa, and part of Accomac, in addition to Onancock.
HRSD representatives have confirmed the treated wastewater would continue to be discharged to Onancock Creek.
Aqua would recharge the Columbia aquifer using rapid infiltration basin technology (RIB).
The technology is referenced in Aqua’s proposal to Exmore, which was received by Town Manager Robert Duer Dec. 20: “Aqua will perform hydraulic testing of the RIB area and make application for the RIB permit.”
The permitting agency is the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ).
It would not be the first time Aqua took over a wastewater treatment plant or implemented RIB technology on the Eastern Shore.
The company acquired both the water and sewer systems at Captains Cove, in upper Accomack County, in December 2015, and the RIB technology is used there.
“Aqua Virginia’s Captains Cove wastewater plant discharges to a rapid infiltration basin (RIB) which is permitted under DEQ’s Virginia Pollution Abatement (VPA) program,” Aqua Virginia Corporate Development Director Clifton Parker wrote in a Dec. 20 letter.
Rapid infiltration basins “mimic rain falling on the ground” and recharge the upper aquifer, Parker explained.
According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, (EPA) rapid infiltration is a “simple and low-cost wastewater treatment concept that has been used for more than 100 years.”
There are more than 350 rapid infiltration systems operating in the U.S.
Rapid infiltration systems use gravity to allow wastewater to filter through the soil, which is economical because no energy or chemicals are used. The systems are reliable, and many have been used for 50 years or more without issue.
Aqua has received multiple awards for its work, including the 2019 innovation award from the National Association of Water Companies, for a project that saved customers money while improving the environment by decreasing nutrient discharge to the Chesapeake Bay watershed.