Large poultry farms on Virginia’s Eastern Shore have been pumping groundwater from the region’s fragile aquifer for years with no oversight from the state Department of Environmental Quality, which is charged with protecting drinking water supplies.Chickens take turns at the yellow automatic water dispensers at Eddie Kelley’s farm in New Church, VA. (Dave Harp)

Now the agency is taking steps to regulate the withdrawals, issuing orders to 57 poultry operations. The orders approved by the State Water Control Board in September would allow those farms to continue tapping into the Shore’s primary drinking water reservoir, consuming a total of nearly a half-billion gallons a year, until final permits are issued.

The orders set maximum monthly and yearly withdrawal limits for each of the facilities, but those thresholds are just a temporary measure, said Drew Hammond, who oversees the DEQ’s water withdrawal permitting program. Each operation will still need to get a final permit, hinging on the results of a new state monitoring program that will establish its actual water consumption and on computer-modeling that will determine whether enough supply is available to meet demand.

“Any water withdrawal limits that may have been requested may be adjusted,” Hammond said at a public hearing recently in Accomack County, home to all but one of the unpermitted farms.

Concerned neighbors and environmental advocates say they aren’t out to shut down poultry farms. Many hope the ordeal will lead farmers and the Eastern Shore’s two agribusiness giants, Tyson Foods and Perdue Farms, to reduce their dependence on the upper portion of the Yorktown-Eastover aquifer.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has designated the Yorktown-Eastover as a “sole-source aquifer” because no other significant source of drinking water exists in the region.

“I don’t think anyone wants to stop anything. We want them to go where there is water,” said John Coker, a member of the Northampton County Board of Supervisors and chairman of the Eastern Shore’s groundwater advisory committee. “This is not about poultry. This is about anyone who wants to withdraw water in the future.”

The Eastern Shore water battle centers on a state law, enacted in 1992, that requires any entity wanting to consume at least 300,000 gallons of groundwater per month to get DEQ approval first. The law applies to users in two parts of the state: the Eastern Shore and a portion of the mainland east of Interstate 95.

But until recently, chicken operations hadn’t been requesting permits, and no one at the DEQ was asking for them. Farmers had been registering their wells with the local health department, but that information was not being relayed to the DEQ, officials said. (As a result of the current groundwater controversy, the two sides are now talking, they said.)

Eddie Kelley, who tends eight chicken houses in New Church just south of the Maryland border, wants to maintain his groundwater access now and in the future — after he retires in a few years and his son takes over. His consent order would allow him to use up to 3 million gallons of water per month, but he said that his actual usage is usually far less.

“The existing wells should be grandfathered, not have to apply for a permit and then be subject to [the DEQ’s] idea of how much water you should be able to withdraw,” Kelley said. “To be threatened with my livelihood and my son’s livelihood, it’s scary.”

Eddie Kelley stands in one of eight chicken houses on his farm in New Church, VA. Perdue varies the flock sizes but this house contains approximately 21,000 two-week old chickens. (Dave Harp)At the heart of the dilemma lies an irony: The Eastern Shore is surrounded by water, with the Chesapeake Bay to the west and Atlantic Ocean to the east.

And rainfall is plentiful. But of the 44 inches of annual rain, only about a half-inch seeps into the Yorktown-Eastover aquifer, scientists have found. The rest winds up elsewhere — taken up by plants, evaporated into the atmosphere or washed off the land into the sea.

State water managers fear that wells may start going dry or saltwater will invade the groundwater. Over the last 20 years, water levels in some wells have dropped by an average of more than 20 feet, particularly in deeper portions of the aquifer, according to measurements taken by the U.S. Geological Survey at observation wells. While the salt concentration has been stable in the upper Yorktown-Eastover aquifer, it is increasing at lower groundwater levels, according to the groundwater committee’s materials.

If their permits are approved, poultry farms would be the most numerous category of large water users on Virginia’s Eastern Shore, accounting for 57 of the 119 DEQ permittees. But their 1 million gallons a day of total permitted withdrawals would represent only about 10 percent of the amount set aside for that 119, according to Britt McMillan, a consultant working for the groundwater committee. The other users include crop farmers, heavy industry and municipal water systems.

The overall amount being used appears sustainable for now, said Scott Kudlas, DEQ’s director of water supply.

“We don’t see evidence in our monitoring wells that alarm us,” he said.

But McMillan has calculated that the current use from all wells — farms, chicken operations, heavy industry, private homes on well water — exceeds the aquifer’s ability to recharge by 1 million gallons a day. Kudlas, for his part, argues that recharge rates and usage vary up and down the Eastern Shore, so a single number doesn’t represent the whole picture.

Jay Ford, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s Virginia Voices outreach coordinator, said the state’s groundwater regulations are too weak to protect a resource as vulnerable as the Yorktown-Eastover aquifer. Permitted users can draw down the water level beneath their wells by as much as 80 percent without sanction.

“Drawing down the aquifer doesn’t seem to be sustainable,” Ford said.

He supports the groundwater committee’s efforts to persuade policymakers and the agricultural industry to pump from a different reservoir — the Columbia aquifer, just beneath the land’s surface — for some of their water needs. Currently, poultry operations use the Yorktown-Eastover aquifer to pipe in slightly less than half of the water they use for their chickens to drink and the rest for cooling the long, shedlike buildings that house them. Ford and other critics say farmers should use the Yorktown-Eastover, which has better quality drinking water, solely for watering their birds while tapping into the Columbia for cooling.

“If we don’t get the state to make this happen, I have lost confidence that we won’t have a major disaster at some point in the future,” said Elaine Meil, a groundwater committee member and executive director of the Accomack-Northampton Planning District Commission. She is pushing for the state to streamline the application process for using the Columbia.

The idea hasn’t caught on yet. None of the 42 final poultry farm permit applications analyzed by McMillan as of mid-August had proposed drilling into the Columbia.

Virginia’s water regulations require withdrawal applicants to use the “lowest quality water for the proposed activity.” But it’s up to the applicants, not the DEQ, to judge which water source best fits their needs, Kudlas said.

“We can’t upfront say, ‘You can only use the Columbia aquifer for cooling.’ They’re allowed to apply for the water they wish,” he said.

Poultry farmers repeatedly argue in permit applications that they shouldn’t be required to use the Columbia aquifer because its water quality is substandard and it lacks a reliable supply.

Water monitoring results tell a different story, McMillan said. There’s no reason to believe the Columbia wouldn’t yield enough water, he told the groundwater board recently.

As for the quality, he said, the two aquifers each present pros and cons. The Columbia contains more nitrates, which pose potential health hazards to humans, and it’s more susceptible to contamination because it lies just below the land surface. Meanwhile, the Yorktown-Eastover is saltier, making it more corrosive to cooling equipment parts. And, because it’s slower to recharge, the Yorktown-Eastover aquifer is more at risk for overpumping and saltwater infiltration.

Kelley, the New Church farmer, said some of the wells he uses have been in operation for decades without a quarrel from anyone, so he and many others were caught off guard by the state’s demand for permits.

His chicken houses are older than many of his fellow contractors’ facilities, putting him at a disadvantage in the industry’s “tournament system” of compensation, which bases a grower’s pay on how well it performs against similar operations. The last thing he needs is to have to spend thousands of dollars drilling new wells, he said.

“I live here, too. I’m not crazy,” said Kelley, a fourth-generation farmer. “I want to have water, too, just like everybody else. But unfortunately, my livelihood depends on the water.”