On Virginia’s portion of the Eastern Shore, it’s the growing number of chickens — not people — that has residents worried about the quantity and quality of their water supply.A truckload of chickens leaves a farm on Virginia’s Eastern Shore en route to a nearby Tyson processing plant. New poultry operations have been cropping up throughout Accomack County, VA,  over the past year, which has left residents worrying about the impact on their water supply. (Dave Harp)

Scientists have known for at least a decade that the use of groundwater from the region’s Yorktown-Eastover system of aquifers has been drawing down the supply more quickly than rainfall can replenish it. But residents started to worry last year that water demands from the growing number of new poultry houses in Accomack County could put too much pressure on an already fragile system.

Groundwater resources are among the top concerns raised at public meetings about the poultry industry’s growth, where citizens have asked if too many water-intensive facilities could cause wells to run dry or backfill with saltwater. Some have asked the state to take legal action against the contract growers for operating without the permits they have only recently been required to get.

As a result, the state Department of Environmental Quality has been stepping up efforts to bring the poultry operations into compliance with permits for groundwater usage. Through that process, the agency is beginning to add up how much water it takes to grow millions of chickens, even as that number continues to grow.

There is no moratorium on building new poultry houses while the DEQ efforts are under way.

The industry’s recent expansion on the Eastern Shore is concentrated in Accomack County, home to two sprawling plants that slaughter and package the chickens grown at nearby farms under contracts with Tyson Foods and Perdue Farms. Neighboring Northampton County has zoning rules that generally prevent the poultry industry from building there.

Fueled largely by the expansion of Tyson’s processing facility in Temperanceville, Accomack County is on pace to nearly double the number of chicken houses within its borders in the coming years, with permit applications submitted for 273 new structures as of last August, according to county documents. 

Carlene Zach (right), stands with her husband, Peter, on their property in Pungoteague, VA, in the summer of 2017. Zach is concerned that the poultry industry's increased water use could put her groundwater supply at risk. (Dave Harp)

Many of the new poultry farms include houses almost twice the size of older versions and, in some cases, twice as many houses per farm. As the number and size of poultry farms in the rural area continues to grow, chickens and their facilities could quickly become the largest documented users of water in the county.

Even as the county continues to approve the construction of new poultry houses, the state does not have a clear understanding of how much groundwater is being used by existing poultry facilities. That’s due in part to a regulatory model that relies on farms to report their water use — and to recent growth and changes in the industry.

“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,” DEQ Director David Paylor wrote in response to a letter signed by five residents concerned about groundwater on the Shore.

The state would not need to understand the farms’ water use so intimately were they not located on Virginia’s Eastern Shore, where groundwater is the only source of fresh water. With no sizable river running through the peninsula, its sole source aquifer — designated as such by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency — is used to fill residential wells, cool manufacturing equipment, irrigate crops and care for the millions of birds grown for meat on the peninsula.

In the spring of 2017, the DEQ began an eight-month period of outreach to poultry growers on the Eastern Shore to inform them that, based on their current water usage, many will need to acquire permits — required for anyone withdrawing 300,000 gallons or more in any month. The agency sent letters to 85 operations that are likely to need permits and held six meetings over the past year.

Paylor said the facilities previously fell below the agency’s radar because they were often only reporting the amount of water consumed by their chickens, which might not have been enough to trigger the permit. But, when added to the amount of water used for cooling towers and misters, “it appears that most [poultry] facilities will require a permit,” Paylor wrote in the letter.

Millions of chickens are grown for meat on Virginia's Eastern Shore and delivered to a pair of slaughterhouses in Accomack County. In response to concerns about water supply, Tyson Foods recently said the company is encouraging new poultry houses to draw their water from an aquifer that replenishes more quickly. (Dave Harp)

By an end-of-year deadline, 30 operations had applied for the permits. Scott Kudlas, director of the DEQ’s office of water supply, said in April that the agency is “in conversations with” another 48 facilities to determine their water use and is beginning the enforcement process with two that have not yet responded. That could include issuing a consent order or fines.

Virginia Eastern Shorekeeper Jay Ford, who has urged regulators to take a closer look at the region’s growing poultry industry, credited the DEQ for its efforts over the past year.

“The reality is that getting folks into a program that they’ve never complied with before does take some time, and we thought DEQ made good steps on that process,” he said.

Ford said he hopes that getting a better account of existing water uses will lay the foundation for a “big picture” conversation about whether groundwater resources on the Eastern Shore are still “sustainable,” a technical definition the state says the region’s supply currently meets. While groundwater monitoring does show historical declines, the state doesn’t consider the aquifer to be “draining,” or depleting at a rate that should be a concern based on existing data, Kudlas said.

Ushering Accomack County’s poultry operations into the groundwater withdrawal program would more than quadruple the number of permits on Virginia’s Eastern Shore. That would add hundreds of thousands of gallons of water use to the model that is used to determine how the resource is managed.

When asked whether this increased accounting could result in a tipping point for groundwater resources, Kudlas said, “I think it’s fair to say that we have some concern that we could be approaching that point.”

“It’s too soon to say how close we may be to that point,” he continued. “But I feel confident that, once we have the opportunity to run the model, we’ll have a pretty clear idea of where we are.”

For Carlene Zach, who lives down the street from a recently built 24-house poultry farm in Pungoteague, the state’s effort to account for the farms’ water use could be too little, too late. She said she recently dug a new, deeper well at her property after her first well ran dry.

“The DEQ should have asked these [farms] to pull water withdrawal permits before they built them,” Zach said. “Now, everyone is scrambling to get these permits after the fact. They put the cart before the horse.”

She and four other residents penned the letter to DEQ’s Paylor in February that asks the regulator, among other things, to consider denying future permits should they compete with drinking water supplies. State laws regarding groundwater allow the regulator to issue permits on a first come, first served basis, but to prioritize uses for “human consumption” if there is not enough water to meet demand, Kudlas said.

Zach is concerned the wells she uses to meet household needs and water her horses could run dry as the nearby facility ramps up production.

Studies by the U.S. Geological Survey show that multiple wells increase the likelihood of those problems because cumulative withdrawals reduce water pressure, which can cause a “cone of depression” around large users. Another concern, especially in coastal areas of the Eastern Shore, is that saltwater could infiltrate underground pockets once occupied by freshwater, said Ward Sanford, a USGS hydrologist.

Residents also want to protect the deeper Yorktown aquifer because it is thought to provide better water quality than the Columbia aquifer, which is closer to the surface. Water in the deeper aquifer is older, typically cleaner and farther from any potential sources of pollution at the land’s surface. That’s why residents would like to see industrial users — particularly those tapping the water to cool facilities — draw from the shallower Columbia aquifer.

Under pressure from environmental groups and regulators, Tyson Foods said in February that the company will cool its new poultry houses with water from the Columbia aquifer, which also replenishes more quickly. The manager of Tyson Foods’ Temperanceville plant, Kevin Taylor, said at a public meeting that month that the company would also look at retrofitting recently constructed poultry houses.

“This is all based on where it’s available, because, talking with the drillers, it may not be available in every situation,” Taylor said at the meeting. “We will explore it on every single farm we have, and that is our commitment from Tyson Foods to this county to continue being good neighbors.”

Meanwhile, Tyson Foods’ sprawling Temperanceville slaughterhouse is applying for a new groundwater permit that would entail drawing 589 million gallons a year from the Yorktown aquifer. Nearby, Perdue Farms’ slaughterhouse operates under a 2012 permit from the DEQ to withdraw 700 million gallons per year from the Yorktown aquifer, which expires in 2022.

Perdue’s vice president of sustainability, Steve Levitsky, wrote in an email that the plant has reduced its use of potable water by 26 percent over the last four years, with goals “to continue reducing water use across the company.” Nationally, Tyson set a goal to cut its water use across operations by 12 percent by 2020.

Many of the pending permit applications in Accomack County are for the structures where contract growers raise chickens that will be processed at Tyson’s plant.

The company has contended that all of the growth is to replace older, defunct poultry houses throughout the Delmarva Peninsula with new, larger houses in Accomack County. But residents remain concerned.

“I can’t take the risk of running out of water,” said Zach, who is considering moving. “It is a very serious situation.”