Floyd County, Virginia’s water comes from the sky alone. No rivers or creeks bring it to us. No lakes or reservoirs store it for us. We live off of short-term loans, and trust the sky to repay our debt.
There has generally — but not always — been water plentiful and good enough so that everyone has what they need, but there is no gauge that tells us how many months or years of recent rains we have left in future reserve below us.
The water that we use in everyday life comes from groundwater — a term that takes different forms in different parts of each state, related to the history of its bedrock.
In Floyd County’s case (like the rest of the Blue Ridge and much of the Carolina Piedmont) we pull our water from a zig-zag of fractures in the ancient hard-rock plateau of the county. It’s in those cracks alone that our rainwater pools.
From what limited knowledge we have of it, our hidden store of water is moderate in volume in a good rain-year, young in age, and generally but not entirely pure.
It is susceptible to injury. If it is fouled near my well, that taint may soon end up coming out of your faucet.
Because of concerns about our water quality and quantity, the topic enters the conversation often in Floyd County. We are a little nervous both about what we don’t know about it, and by what we do.
What we do know is that hundreds of wells went dry in the early 2000s and many new wells — at great expense — were required when the sky did not supply enough and the cracks ran dry.
We do know that four-legged animals have fouled some creeks, seeps and wells. Dodd Creek is one tarnished example of a body of Floyd County water that has had quality issues involving bacteria that carry the potential to cause human disease.
Fortunately, because of Floyd County’s out-of-the-way location in the world, we do not stand at risk for water disasters like slurry pond coal-ash slithering into Little River. We need not fear railroad cars of caustic chemicals exploding, sending poisonous goo into Beaver Creek.
We are safe from most other unimaginable water tragedies that have, in recent years, befallen those places criss-crossed by utility traffic or transport, or scarred by oil and gas easements that bring the risk or reality of personal injury and of serious, long-term water contamination for the residents nearby.
At least we have not been at such risk in the past.
This summer we learned that the construction of a 42-inch interstate natural gas pipeline is proposed to cross about 20 miles of Floyd County. A chief concern among many is the future risk to our water.
Floyd County’s water resources would be at risk from the blasting and excavation of the trench; from the regular ongoing herbicide spraying of the right-of-way; by the compaction by heavy construction equipment; and from the disturbance and diversion of surface streams, creeks, springs and wetlands.
Pipes also corrode and leak. Toxic water in one underground fracture can move under fences and property lines through those horizontal water-filled cracks. A single point of pollution, then, can send contaminants out over a distance. How much distance? That’s something we generally can’t say with certainty.
We suspect that water storage in rock fractures can be depleted by drainage changes on the surface, and shut off entirely at some distance by subsurface blasting. Much surface disturbance and blasting would be required to bury a 42-inch pipe through the hard rock of the Blue Ridge.
So while only a relatively few landowners would be in the direct path of this potential insult to our natural and human environment, all of us stand at risk for unacceptable disturbance to our shared water.
How much risk? Somewhere between some and a lot. We don’t know.
What we do know is that the life we hope for here depends on water we can trust. And I don’t trust the takers who tell us not to worry about such things.