By Dylan Cooper, columnist
As a hydrologist, October 1st marks a special time for me, as it is the first day of the new water year in Virginia. The water year is a rough estimation of the water table’s annual cycle of rising and falling. Usually around this time of year, vegetation starts going dormant and draws less water from the ground. Weather patterns will begin to change and we typically go from a dry summer pattern punctuated by pop-up thunderstorms to a more moderately wet and cool season. Lower temperatures, shorter days, and a lower angle of the sun means less evaporation. All of these natural factors fuse together to cause the water table to begin to rise again after being at its lowest level around October 1st.
You can watch for drought conditions with Virginia’s state drought monitor. When we started the 2019-2020 Water Year on October 1, 2019, over 96% of the state was experiencing abnormally dry or drier conditions. For the start of this coming water year, it seems as if we are in good shape because currently 0% of Virginia is experiencing abnormally dry conditions. The extra precipitation we’ve seen since mid-summer has kept things soggier than usual.
The baseflow of the Shenandoah River and its tributaries will also begin to rise with the new water year because stream baseflow levels are directly tied to the water table in that area. This is great news for those who like to enjoy floating the river while taking in the beautiful color changes our valley experiences in the fall. This past summer, the river flows were often too high for safe floating on many popular weekends. I was able to get out on the river only a handful of times, and I often chose the North Fork over the South Fork Shenandoah based on the river gage data at the time I wanted to go. For the most part, bass fishing in both rivers was sub-par and even worse when it got crowded. I had just one float where 50+ smallmouth bass were caught, and another trip where we found a 20.5” smallmouth on a day when we only caught four bass total. Flows are currently holding just above average for this time of year, which is usually good for paddlers or tubers wanting to miss rocks, logs, and ledges. So with lighter crowds and healthy flows, this fall is looking like a great opportunity to make up for lost river time. Wherever you go, remember to always check the river gages before floating.
The water table is important for valley residents, both human and non-human. Fall is a time of migration for many species. Incoming waterfowl and other birds need plenty of habitat, food, and water when they arrive. With wet conditions, that leaves open plenty of ponds and full-flowing streams for their arrival, as well as usually a large crop base and a healthy vegetation stand for feeding. In a dry year, birds may completely skip over an area that is lacking available habitat, food, and water.
In our mountain streams during this time of year, the native Brook Trout, our state’s only native trout species, begin to emerge from their summer refuges to find spawning areas and mates. Brook Trout spawn here in the months of October and November so healthy stream flows during this time are critical to movement through a stream and for availability of spawning gravel areas in the ends of pools. Keep this in mind when you are exploring your next stream to not wade or drive through areas where the natives might be laying their eggs that will hatch over winter.
We will also typically see the water levels rise in our ponds, wetlands, and other low-lying wet areas with the new water year. Flows from springs will increase from now until the spring season. Shallow wells that may go dry in the summer should start to have water again. Many of us depend on groundwater as a source of drinking water. Those who have spring-fed and shallow wells can relax a little bit about water availability with the current outlook of the water table as the new water year arrives. If you are concerned or curious about the quality of your spring or well water, there is an upcoming opportunity for you to learn more.
In October, residents of Page, Warren, Shenandoah, Clarke, and Frederick Counties that get their water from a well, spring, or cistern can get their water tested through the VA Household Water Quality Program held by the Virginia Cooperative Extension (VCE). With the COVID-19 pandemic still looming, this year’s clinic will be held mostly online. A kick-off meeting will be held via Zoom. Page County residents will be able to pick up their sample kits from the VCE Page County office on Monday, October 19 or Tuesday, October 20. Physical distancing measures will be in place and facial coverings will be required. Then on Wednesday, October 21, you will drop off your sample at the extension office. It will be rushed to the Water Quality Lab at Virginia Tech to be analyzed. Later on, the results meeting will be held via Zoom. If the Page County dates don’t work for you, you are welcome to participate in a surrounding county as long as you can both pick up and return your sample at that county’s location.
Pre-registration for the clinic is required and can be done online or by mailing your payment in to the VCE Frederick County office along with the form you can download. The cost is $60 per sample but there are scholarships available on a financial need-based request to the VCE Frederick County office (540-665-5699) that will lower the cost to $20 per sample per household. The test will include analysis of Lead, Iron, Manganese, Sulfate, Nitrate, Arsenic, Copper, Sodium, Fluoride, pH, Hardness, Total Dissolved Solids, and Coliform and E. Coli bacteria. Participation is voluntary and all information will be kept strictly confidential.
In heavy Karst areas like Page County, drinking water quality should be of utmost importance. It’s not just above-ground pollution sources you need to be worried about but also what might be flowing underground into your water source. I personally plan on submitting samples from two wells that I use for drinking water near where I live near Luray.
Coliforms are bacteria that are found throughout the environment as well as from the intestinal tracts of animals and humans. Although usually harmless, when coliforms are found in wells, it is a sign that water that’s been on the surface recently is in contact with deeper groundwater, and may contain more dangerous microorganisms and other contaminants. E. coli bacteria, on the other hand, can indicate that contamination from animal waste (often livestock, pets, or wildlife) or human waste (failing septic systems) may be occurring. The E. coli bacteria can make people sick with gastro-intestinal illnesses.
Nitrate can sometimes enter drinking water through high amounts of fertilizer leaching into groundwater. Nitrate is a concern because it can cause methemoglobinemia, also known as Blue Baby Syndrome, in infants and newborns.
Hardness is very common in our area due to underlying limestone bedrock and is generally not a cause for concern about human health, but it may lead to issues in plumbing, washing machines, and other water-fed appliances and piping.
Since lead pipes and lead solder were banned in 1986 with the Safe Drinking Water Act, you may not think lead is a concern in your water. In reality, there are a lot of older houses and even some newer homes constructed as recently as 2014 that may have copper pipes with lead solder, as well as brass fittings and fixtures that were made with up to 8% lead. If you happen to have corrosive water, as was supplied to Flint, Michigan residents, then that lead can leach from the brass or solder into your drinking water and possibly be absorbed by your body. This drinking water test will be able to tell you if your sample contains any lead.
There are no requirements for private well owners to routinely test or maintain their well. Therefore, it is fully your responsibility to assure it is safe to drink for you and your family, pets, and livestock. Take it upon yourself to get your well water tested, and then get out and enjoy the outdoors this fall.
Dylan Cooper is a Page County native and graduate of Luray High School and Virginia Tech. He is a stream restoration specialist for a local non-profit and a registered professional engineer in the state of Virginia. An avid outdoorsman and ardent environmentalist, he currently resides in Luray with his wife and dogs.