2017-06-21 / Featured / Real Estate

Water issues raise concern over new housing


Recent algae growth in the Swift Creek Reservoir, which supplies 20 percent of the county’s drinking water, has some worried about the impact of new development. 
JAMES HASKINS Recent algae growth in the Swift Creek Reservoir, which supplies 20 percent of the county’s drinking water, has some worried about the impact of new development. JAMES HASKINS Recent algae growth in the Swift Creek Reservoir has affected water quality in several Chesterfield neighborhoods and raised questions about the impact of new development on one of the county’s primary sources of drinking water.

Peyton Craighill contacted the county’s Utilities Department last month after observing that his home’s tap water had begun to taste and smell like “stagnant lake water.”

“It was bad enough that you smelled it when taking a shower, and tasted it even if you were only cooking with it,” Craighill noted in an email to the Observer.

Craighill, who lives in Midlothian’s Cedar Creek subdivision, initially was concerned that he had a leak in an underground water line or a backflow problem with his irrigation system.

He asked a couple of his neighbors if they had noticed any change in the quality of their drinking water. Both said no. The next day, however, Craighill’s neighbors reported that their wives thought their tap water had taken on an unusual taste and odor.

“I guess some people are more sensitive to it than others,” Craighill said.

A Utilities Department employee responded to Craighill’s inquiry, assuring him that changes in the taste and odor of his home’s drinking water were a “temporary, harmless condition” caused by algae growth in the reservoir.

Residents of another Midlothian subdivision, The Grove, received the same response after inquiring about issues with their water.

In a discussion on the community’s Facebook page, several residents reported that their water tasted “dirty” or “earthy” even after being filtered. Additional citizen inquiries prompted George Hayes, the county’s utilities director, to issue a water quality advisory that was posted to the Brandermill Community Association website.

The advisory noted that Chesterfield’s water is “safe to drink” and “meets all federal and state Safe Drinking Water Act requirements.”

The presence of algae in the reservoir isn’t unusual. According to the 2015 Swift Creek Reservoir Water Quality Data Report, a document produced by the county’s Environmental Engineering Department based on data collected at the Addison-Evans water treatment facility, there were 43 different types of algae identified within the 1,700-acre lake.

This year, though, the dominant species has been a type of blue-green algae that excretes a small amount of a harmless chemical that produces a musty taste and odor in water.

After receiving citizen inquiries about the quality of their drinking water, Hayes said, the Utilities Department began increasing the dosage of chemicals it uses to treat algae in the reservoir.

“We have a handle on it now,” he added. “But once it gets into the water distribution system, it’s quite an effort to flush it out.”

Preserving the health of Swift Creek Reservoir, which was built in 1965 and presently supplies about 20 percent of the county’s drinking water, has been a concern for many citizens since large-scale residential and commercial development spread into northwestern Chesterfield in the late 1970s and ’80s.

The county assessed conditions in the reservoir’s watershed in 1989. Three years later, the Board of Supervisors adopted goals to protect the reservoir and appointed citizens and staff to serve on a watershed management committee.

Based on recommendations from the committee in 1997, the board established ordinances that place annual limits on the amount of phosphorous that can be generated by residential development.

“We’ve been pretty successful in meeting those limits even with development [around the reservoir],” said Scott Smedley, director of the county’s Environmental Engineering department.

Under federal regulations that took effect in 2014 as part of an effort to clean up the Chesapeake Bay, Chesterfield and other localities in the bay’s watershed face even stricter limits on the amount of phosphorous and nitrogen in their stormwater. Algae relies on both phosphorus and nitrogen for growth.

The county has undertaken several projects to comply with the federal requirements, including a multimillion-dollar restoration of the Falling Creek Reservoir.

The northeastern Chesterfield reservoir was a drinking water source for the county until the mid-1980s, when significant erosion issues and sediment from stormwater runoff prompted its closure.

County resident Thomas Pakurar thinks Falling Creek Reservoir should serve as a cautionary tale about development and its potential impact on the environment.

According to Pakurar, a member of the local environmental group Hands Across the Lake, algae growth in Swift Creek Reservoir suggests the reservoir is under “acute stress” from high nutrient loads.

With the recent increase in new home construction in northwestern Chesterfield, Pakurar said, stormwater runoff increasingly carries phosphorous and nitrogen into tributaries that feed the reservoir.

Such nutrients serve as food for algae that caused the taste and odor issues in residents’ drinking water, he added.

“You’re obviously going to have more runoff than if the reservoir was maintained in a pristine, forested state,” Smedley said. “One thing we can’t really control is the development that has occurred over the past 50 years. Those decisions were made a long time ago. The best we can do is implement the laws and regulations we have at our disposal.”

The county’s 2015 Water Quality Report for the Swift Creek Reservoir, which includes data from eight monitoring locations, noted that all water quality indicators continue to suggest “acceptable conditions” in the reservoir.

Hayes, who called the reservoir “an invaluable source” of drinking water for the county, said the local government has considerable incentive to keep it healthy.

“I see the reservoir being with us well into the future,” he added. ¦

Return to top