Tomato Farms Seek 129.5 Million Gallons Annual Water Withdrawal

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By Stefanie Jackson – A tomato farm complex near Exmore is applying to the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) for a groundwater withdrawal permit that will allow the facility to withdraw nearly 1.65 billion gallons of water over a 15-year period, according to a public notice that ran in the Jan. 22 edition of the Eastern Shore Post.

Kuzzens, Inc. is applying for the permit for two adjacent farms in Wardtown, the Marshall Johnson farm on Occohannock Road and the Johnson-Grapeland farm on Grapeland Circle, which have been combined into one farm complex requiring one permit.

Each farm previously was permitted to withdraw more than 30 million gallons of groundwater per year over a period of 10 years. Both permits expired Nov. 30, 2012.

Also part of the Marshall-Johnson-Grapeland farm complex, which covers about 250 acres, are six greenhouses adjacent to the Johnson-Grapeland farm.

The new groundwater withdrawal permit, which DEQ has tentatively approved, would allow the farm complex to withdraw a maximum of 129.5 million gallons of groundwater per year, or an average of 354,795 gallons per day.

The farm complex will be permitted to withdraw as much groundwater per day as approximately eight average-sized poultry farms, according to data on about 50 Accomack County poultry farms that applied for groundwater withdrawal permits in 2019.

Every facility that withdraws 300,000 or more gallons of groundwater per month must submit a groundwater withdrawal permit application to DEQ.

The Kuzzens farm complex has two irrigation ponds, one for each farm. There are nine wells – three to recharge each of the irrigation ponds and three to supply water to the greenhouses.

The wells access groundwater from the Columbia aquifer at a depth of 14 to 68 feet and the Yorktown-Eastover aquifer at a depth of 80 to 152 feet.

These two sources of groundwater combine to make up the Eastern Shore’s sole-source aquifer, so called because there is no other significant source of fresh water in the region.

The aquifer system is surrounded by salt water and is replenished by rainfall.

Deeper wells that access the Yorktown aquifer are the preferred source of drinking water on the Shore, because rain that percolates farther into the ground is more filtered and contains fewer contaminants.

Environmentalists recommend that Shore farms use the Columbia aquifer whenever possible to water their crops and livestock.

However, the permit applicant stated that the wells in both the Columbia and Yorktown aquifers are needed to supplement the irrigation ponds during dry periods, and together these supply the “lowest quality water source practically available.”

There is no public water service available at the farm complex. Occohannock Creek is nearby, but the water is brackish and treating it would be cost-prohibitive.

The tomato farm uses 50% to 75% less water by irrigating its crops with “plasticulture” instead of an overhead sprinkler system.

Underground drip irrigation equipment is placed in raised earthen beds, which are covered with plastic mulch.

The system prevents water loss by controlling soil temperature, minimizing weed growth, and capturing moisture from the soil, which might otherwise evaporate.

The well-water supply to the farm’s six greenhouses allows the greenhouses to be planted two to three times per year. Each greenhouse at full capacity holds 4,300 flats of plants, with 200 seeds per flat, for a total expected yield of about 10 million tomato seedlings.

The applicant plans to irrigate all 250 acres of land annually, using about 411,000 gallons of water per acre, for a total of 102.8 million gallons per year, or about 1.54 billion gallons in 15 years.

Public comments or requests for a public hearing will be accepted until Feb. 22 and may be submitted by writing to Brian McGurk, Central Office, P.O. Box 1105, Richmond, VA, 23218; calling 804-698-4180; or emailing brian.mcgurk@deq.virginia.gov

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