By Stefanie Jackson – The Virginia Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) has no plans to hold a public hearing on a groundwater permit application for a 250-acre tomato farm in Wardtown, which is tentatively approved to withdraw more than 10 million gallons of water per month.
According to a March 22 memo from Joseph Grist, DEQ water withdrawal permitting and compliance manager, at least 25 requests for a public hearing on a groundwater withdrawal permit must be received before a public hearing can be granted.
The public comment period on the Kuzzens tomato farm permit application began Jan. 22 and ended Feb. 22. During the 30-day period, 16 comments were received, including only six requests for a public hearing.
A top concern of citizens was the farm’s plan to withdraw water from the Upper Yorktown-Eastover Aquifer, which is farther below the ground than the Columbia Aquifer.
Because the Yorktown Aquifer is deeper, it is the preferred source of drinking water and more slowly replenished by rainfall.
Furthermore, because the Eastern Shore is surrounded by the Chesapeake Bay and Atlantic Ocean, its aquifers are in danger of saltwater intrusion, particularly when the groundwater supply is depleted too quickly.
Public comments suggested that the farm’s only sources of water for irrigation should be the Columbia Aquifer and runoff collected in irrigation ponds.
However, the permit applicant stated that water from wells in both the Columbia and Yorktown Aquifers would be needed to supplement the irrigation ponds during dry spells.
Citizens also raised concern that the proposed withdrawals could negatively impact the wells of nearby residents.
DEQ maps show that the area of impact would extend more than 4.5 miles, reaching the towns of Exmore and Belle Haven, other areas of Northampton County such as Wellington Neck and Concord Wharf, and parts of Accomack County such as Craddockville, stated Ken Dufty, a resident of Wardtown who has studied DEQ documents related to the groundwater withdrawal permit.
The maps indicate where groundwater withdrawals could lead to saltwater intrusion and are normally made available when public notice is given of a pending groundwater withdrawal permit application.
Dufty was unable to obtain the Area of Impact maps until more than one month after the public comment period expired.
In a March 24 letter to Scott Kudlas, DEQ office of water supply director, Dufty wrote, “Indeed, if this family had known that our farm lies directly and affirmatively in the impact zone from the Kuzzens pending groundwater withdrawal permit, we not only would have requested a public hearing in this matter, we would have demanded that one be held …”
Even more “alarming” than the area of impact was the projected level of impact. DEQ simulated how much the concentration of chloride in the Yorktown Aquifer would increase from withdrawing nearly 110 million gallons of water per year over a period of 50 years.
Dufty asserted that the result was a concentration of chloride that “far exceeds the (Virginia Department of Health) recommended concentrations of salt in drinking water … up to 4 times that limit,” he wrote.
If that information had been more readily available during the public comment period, many more requests for a public hearing likely would have been made, Dufty stated.
He criticized DEQ’s handling of the Kuzzens farm groundwater withdrawal permit application as “reminiscent of the DEQ permitting failures and indeed calamity when your department failed to require groundwater withdrawal permits for the 50+ poultry facilities in Accomack County in the 2018 timeframe.”
The March 22 DEQ memo stated that DEQ will modify the permit regarding the maximum water withdrawal and provide more specifics on using the Columbia Aquifer and the applicant’s responsibility to manage the potential risks of saltwater intrusion.
A public hearing will be held if the applicant wishes to contest the revisions.