(Delmarvanow.com) -- Some poultry growing operations on Virginia's Eastern Shore "are under investigation and likely require permits," according to the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality.
David Paylor, director of DEQ, detailed how the agency became aware of groundwater use by the poultry operations in a Feb. 23 letter he wrote to a group of concerned Eastern Shore of Virginia residents.
The group, Citizens Concerned about Groundwater on the Eastern Shore of Virginia, wrote the agency earlier in February, asking that an injunction be placed on 83 chicken farms in Accomack County that did not obtain groundwater withdrawal permits.
Signing the letter were Kenneth Dufty of Exmore; Carlene Zach of Pungoteague; Gene Gibson of Wachapreague; Anne Winston Batchelder of Pungoteague; and Ann Violi of Harborton.
"DEQ shares your concern about the growth of long-term water withdrawals and their potential impact on the Eastern Shore aquifer system," Paylor wrote.
Groundwater withdrawals for the facilities being investigated were previously unreported to the agency, he said, noting the final number of facilities and the amounts of water involved are still under investigation.
"Please be assured that the DEQ will require permits for all of the facilities determined to need permits," Paylor said in the letter.
Kenneth Dufty, part of the concerned citizens' group, commented on Paylor's response.
"The fact that Director Paylor took the time and energy to respond to our concerns with this lengthy letter is a tribute to the fact that this is a serious issue," he said, adding, "But it does not negate the fact that this travesty of environmental ball-dropping is inexcusable and we must work together with his agency to ensure we have a sustainable future here on the Eastern Shore of Virginia."
The agency recently completed a multi-year effort to reduce groundwater withdrawals in the Eastern Virginia Groundwater Management Area, which includes all of Virginia east of Interstate 95 except the Eastern Shore, Paylor said in the letter.
The Eastern Shore is its own management area.
The General Assembly created an advisory committee as part of that project — its purpose was to make recommendations about long-term sustainable groundwater management in the region.
Among topics the Eastern Virginia Groundwater Management Advisory Committee discussed was the need to identify those who are withdrawing groundwater who are not reporting it to DEQ.
"Historically, groundwater withdrawals by agriculture users have not been well-documented, whether the groundwater has been used for irrigation of crops or for watering animals," Paylor wrote.
The committee's discussions led to DEQ implementing a permitting compliance assistance framework between April 1 and Dec. 15, 2017.
The purpose was to increase awareness of the permitting process and regulatory requirements for groundwater withdrawal, according to the letter.
It applied to all groundwater users without permits in both the Eastern Virginia and the Eastern Shore groundwater management areas, and gave a limited period for those users to to apply for permits.
During the same time, DEQ confined animal feeding operations inspectors "identified significant new well construction activities on the Eastern Shore," which could use enough volume to be subject to permitting regulations, according to the letter.
DEQ since April 2017 has received a total of 37 groundwater withdrawal applications for "previously unpermitted activities" — 30 are for poultry facilities on the Eastern Shore.
The agency is in the process of reviewing the applications and is continuing to work through the permitting process with applicants.
Additionally, warning letters are being sent to users who have not applied but who may be required to have a permit.
The agency "will consider all of the available remedies" and make decisions on enforcement actions once its investigations are complete, according to the letter.
Over the last year, DEQ has coordinated with the poultry industry, other states and academic experts, "and now has a much clearer understanding of the water usage" involved in growing poultry and conditions that trigger the permit requirement.
"It appears that most facilities will require a permit," Paylor wrote.
Still, groundwater monitoring on the Eastern Shore does not show the aquifer is draining at present, but does show "some historic water level declines" — those are expected based on current use "and do not appear to reflect excessive use at this time," according to DEQ.
The agency is continuing to identify existing and proposed groundwater withdrawals, from which aquifer they are coming, "and how much water is being withdrawn over what time periods," the letter said.
Once DEQ has the information, it will evaluate, as part of the permitting process, the effect on the aquifer.
"As DEQ moves forward evaluating and developing permits for water usage, please be assured that regulatory thresholds will be maintained and that the aquifer will be managed in a sustainable way consistent with the regulations," Paylor wrote.
Dufty said the concerned citizens' group will respond to Paylor directly, but he said they "must react immediately to his inference that our aquifer is not 'draining.'"
"The fact is that our Yorktown Aquifer will never drain ... as this freshwater lens of pristine drinking water 'floats' on an imposing bed of salt water ... which is always more than wiling to migrate into our drinking water wells given any opportunity. In short, the Eastern Shore of Virginia will never run out of the water: We just won't be able to drink it or in fact grow our crops with that replacement resource."
The issue is that, according to the law, groundwater withdrawal over 300,000 gallons per month in a groundwater management area requires a permit, Dufty said.
"This ensures that groundwater designated for human consumption is not compromised for the benefit of any other uses — and that includes chickens," he said.
Tyson Foods recently announced a change in its water usage procedures for its chickenhouses, tapping into an Eastern Shore aquifer that has a higher replenishment rate than the Yorktown — the source that provides most of the Eastern Shore of Virginia’s drinking water.