Skip to Content
Virginia Naturally

Virginia's Water Resources

Chapter 10

Link to lesson

Water is vital to Virginia's well-being, as it is to communities across the globe. Water supports virtually every human endeavor-from farming and forestry to the generation of electric power and all types of manufacturing processes.

Water sustains human "habitat" as it does for the millions of plants and animals that share the planet with us. Here in our little corner of the world, fresh water use currently totals more than 5,467 million gallons per day (mgd), or approximately 826 gallons daily for each Virginia resident.

Where is Virginia's Water?

The state's average annual rainfall is 42 inches but, in truth, it ranges from 35 to 55 inches (based on 30-year records). In Virginia, rainfall is distributed evenly throughout the year without distinct wet and dry periods. This abundancy - approximately 79,800 million gallons per day - supplies Virginia's surface and ground water. Precipitation in the form of rain, snow, or ice falls to the earth and replenishes surface waters. Some of the precipitation filters into the soil and continues down through cracks and crevices to replenish ground water, a zone where all pore spaces become saturated.

River Basins

River BasinsVirginia has nine major river basins whose natural, recreational, commercial, and cultural resources combine to make the Commonwealth a rich blend of colors and contours. While most of the state drains into the Chesapeake Bay, water from the westernmost basins ends up in the Gulf of Mexico. Rivers in the Roanoke and Chowan basins flow into the Albemarle Sound in North Carolina. The Albemarle Sound is part of the Albemarle-Pamlico Estuary System, the second largest estuarine system in the United States.

It was along the banks of the wide, placid James River that English colonists settled in the early 1600s, establishing Tidewater Virginia as the "Cradle of the Republic." The James and her sister rivers draining to the Chesapeake Bay - the York, Rappahannock, and Potomac rivers - drain nearly two-thirds of Virginia's land mass.

Virginia's Water Budget Analysis

Precipitation 79,800Surface water inflow 1,770

Evapotranspiration 52,600
Surface water outflow 28,700

The Commonwealth's western rivers-the ancient New River and the Tennessee-Big Sandy-course through rugged mountain valleys where generations of Virginia farmers, miners, trout fishermen, and white-water rafters have capitalized on their spirit. And the Roanoke and Chowan rivers meander through Virginia's Southside, sustaining peanut and tobacco farms, textile industries, and lakeside vacationers.

Rivers carry enormous amounts of water, especially during floods when peak flows can reach 40 to 80 times their average volumes. During such events, rivers also transport enormous amounts of sediment and pollution. And rivers are known to unleash tremendous force upon human resources during such storm events.

It wasn't that long ago, in June 1972, that Hurricane Agnes deposited more than 6 inches of rain over many parts of Virginia (a record amount in one day for Lynchburg and the National Airport in Washington, DC). The soil was already saturated and when heavy rains hit, the result was rapid runoff and disastrous flooding. Water levels in the James River in Richmond reached a peak of 36.5 feet, the highest recorded level in more than 200 years. Average stream flow at this station is 6,796 cubic feet per second (cfs) and, during Agnes, it peaked at 313,000 cfs. Water supply, sewage treatment, and electric and gas plants were flooded. Throughout the state, 1,400 homes, roads, and bridges were destroyed and 13 people killed, amounting to 325 million dollars in damage.

Protecting Water Resources

Who consumes what?Protecting our water is the responsibility of all Virginians, including state government. Virginia was among the first state in the nation to embrace this responsibility and in 1946 enacted the Virginia Water Control Law to combat water pollution (two years before the adoption of the first Federal Water Pollution Control Act by Congress). Over the past 30 years, resource managers have made great strides to address water-related concerns. One concern is adequate future supplies for shared use by consumers, farmers, industries, and recreationists. The goal sounds simple enough but may prove our most challenging: to provide the right quantity of satisfactory quality water where and when it is needed. For example, power plants supplying electricity and factories supplying goods use vast amounts of water.

Already, surface and ground water resources are limited in areas where demand is greatest. The result can create conflicts among local governments, who are not neatly aligned along river basin lines. In some regions of the state where conflicts have become acute (such as the Eastern Shore), designated Ground Water Management Areas have been established, and large water withdrawals (>10,000 gpd) require special permits.

Good water quality is another concern - complex in its dimensions. Practically everything we do in our day-to-day lives has an impact on water quality. Whenever we take a shower, wash a dish, or flush a toilet, the wastewater likely passes through a sewage treatment plant that eventually discharges into a local river. All of these actions become "drops in the stream" of what we call "point source" pollution, or pollution traceable to a discrete point. Mining, forestry, farming, and construction are all examples of soil-disturbing activities that can lead to erosion and, ultimately, soil running off the land into nearby water bodies. All have the capacity to add nutrients, sediments, toxics, minerals, or acids to lakes and streams. This type of pollution is called "nonpoint source" pollution, meaning it eminates from sources difficult to pinpoint.

The Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) has issued more than 3,000 discharge permits to businesses, municipalities, and individual homeowners. The documents set pollution limits that specify how clean a permit holder's wastewater must be before it is discharged into a stream or river. The vast majority of permit holders consistently meet their permit limits, ensuring that users downstream (people, plants, and animals) receive the water in good condition. In addition, Virginia has spent nearly half a billion dollars over the past decade to build or upgrade its sewage treatment plants across the state. The result has been a dramatic reduction in the amount of raw or partially treated sewage going into state waters

Surface water is the kind we can easily see-streams, lakes and reservoirs, springs, and wetlands.

  • Rivers: 49,000 miles of streams in 9 major river basins
  • Lakes: 450 public and private covering 322,000 acres
  • Springs: 1,600 (100 of them yield > 450 gallons per minute)
  • Wetlands: 1,000,000 acres, decreased from 1.8 million acres in 1780

Ground water is found beneath the soil mantle in rock fractures and sediment formations. Large units that yield water to wells are called aquifers. The annual recharge to the groundwater system from precipitation ranges from 8 inches in western Virginia to 10 inches in the Coastal Plain. About 2 million Virginians, or 34%, depend entirely on wells for drinking water.

  • Sediments - from soil erosion
  • Urban and suburban stormwater flows - from storm events
  • Phosphates and nitrates - from agricultural sources
  • Improperly treated sewage - from overflows during storm events, or from failing septic systems
  • Industrial wastes such as acids, oils, and grease - from factories and other industrial facilities
  • Acids and leachates - from abandoned mines and dumps
  • Encroaching salt water - from the ocean into groundwater supplies
  • Herbicides and pesticides - from water and sediments running off the land

In 1997 the Virginia General Assembly passed the Water Improvement Act to help fund innovative technologies and programs to further improve water quality. Evidence is mounting that we're making progress. The most recent statewide water quality assessment (April 1996) showed that most Virginia waterways - 93.7 percent of all streams monitored - are in good shape and meet or exceed water quality standards. Bald eagles, ospreys, and pelicans have returned to fish Virginia waters. In the Chesapeake Bay, striped bass have made a dramatic comeback, underwater grasses have increased 60 percent since 1984, and phosphorus levels have been reduced 19 percent since 1985. The amount of toxic chemicals released by industries into the Bay watershed has declined 55 percent since 1988.

Challenges remain, however. The most serious threats to water quality in Virginia today involve nonpoint sources of pollution - storm runoff from farms, streets, parking lots, lawns, construction sites and other developed lands. Indeed, the April 1996 assessment found that the vast majority (83 percent) of water pollution problems in the Commonwealth are caused by such elusive sources.

Runoff often carries excess fertilizers, manures, toxic chemicals, pathogens and sediments into rivers and streams.

Here Are Some Suggestions On How To "Lighten Your Footsteps" Upon The Land:

  • Farmers, foresters, and contractors engaged in land-altering activites can take sediment and erosion control measures
  • Localities can implement storm water controls and steer development away from sensitive natural areas
  • Homeowners can use less toxics in the home and garden-specifically, cleansers and pesticides
  • Homeowners and developers can reduce paved (impervious) surfaces and the use of fertilizers
  • Everyone can recycle motor oil and dispose of hazardous substances safely by following label instructions

DEQ and other state agencies are working with local governments, industries, volunteer groups, and citizens to address these and other water pollution issues. Today DEQ maintains a network of more than 1,100 monitoring stations that regularly sample and analyze streams, rivers, lakes, and bays across the state. DEQ monitors 17,000 miles of free-flowing streams. The agency also regularly surveys stream life - the aquatic organisms living in the water - and takes samples of bottom sediments and fish tissues for toxic analysis. Together with data from other state agencies and active citizen monitoring groups, DEQ has a comprehensive database of water quality information, the basis for making continued improvements and informed decisions.

Interested In A Water Quality Project?

  • Stream and Beach Clean-ups - involve riverbank or beach trash collection.Tree Plantings - involve planting trees in the "riparian" zone, or streambank corridor.
  • SAV Counts and Plantings - involve restoration of underwater vegetation.
  • Water Quality Monitoring - involves a class to become trained in biological or chemical monitoring

Additional Resources

Web Sites:

Other Resources:

  • van der Leeden, Fritz. 1993. Water Altas of Virginia, Basic Facts About Virginia's Water Resources. Lexington, VA: Tennyson Press, ISBN: 0-9638711-0-2. A collection of 46 maps depicting various aspects of Virginia's water resources accompanied by an explanation of key features; call (540) 463-2599
  • Citizens for Water Quality; a state-wide consortium of people interested in preserving and enhancing Virginia's water resources; contact the state water quality coordinator at DEQ, (804) 698-4026.

Fundamental Learnings Related to Water Resources

  • All life processes, from the level of a cell to that of an ecosystem, require water. Both the quantity and quality of water are important. Habitats with abundant plants and animals are areas with clean water in good supply.
  • Water is found in the atmosphere, on the surface, and underground. The water cycle is central to life on Earth and connects Earth systems.
  • Water is a natural resource that must be managed. The amount of available freshwater is limited (99% of the Earth's water is saline) and must support multiple users. Clean, sustainable water supplies are vital. When supplies fail to meet demands, conflicts arise.
  • Aquatic environments are subject to much use and abuse by people. Water pollution occurs when chemicals, nutrients, or sediments are placed into water faster than they can be removed by natural processes. Water pollution can often be traced to runoff in the watershed.
  • While water is useful as a cleaning agent ("the universal solvent") and as a means for disposing of soluble waste, the capacity for water to dilute pollutants is limited.