Western Virginia Water Authority

Consolidation of the drinking water systems in the Roanoke River Valley has been a slow process. As the region developed, all communities relied upon the wastewater treatment plant built in 1951 by the City of Roanoke.

The first drinking water system in the valley served both Vinton and the city of Roanoke. However, different jurisdictions tried to keep their independence from each other and created separate drinking water systems for the cities of Roanoke and Salem, the Town of Vinton, and Roanoke County despite the costs (later increased by the Safe Drinking Water Act water quality standards).

In the 1890's, the Vinton-Roanoke Water Company built a reservoir on Falling Creek and developed Smith Spring on Beaverdam Creek in Bedford County. A system of pipes distributed water to customers in the Town of Vinton and the new, rapidly-growing City of Roanoke. The company soon sold its distribution system within the boundaries of Vinton to the town, and committed to supply water at a standard price of $0.05 per 1,000 gallons.

The City of Roanoke acquired the private water company in the 1930's, expanding its water sources beyond Crystal Spring at the base of Mill Mountain. After World War II, Roanoke notified town officials that their water rate would be increased. Vinton refused to pay the higher rate, but the Virginia Supreme Court ruled that Roanoke was entitled to raise the rate. In the mid-1960's, Vinton drilled wells and established an independent drinking water system.1

Roanoke also acquired a separate private water company and its planned reservoir at Happy Valley. By 1928, the Roanoke Water Works had built a dam and started to force 59 families to move, but the Great Depression intervened and the water system was incomplete when purchased by the city.

During World War II, German prisoners of war helped to clear the timber and the remaining structures from the valley, and by 1946 the Carvins Cove reservoir was full. Later, tunnels were dug through Tinker Mountain so Catawba Creek and Tinker Creek could be tapped to fill the Carvins Cove reservoir through interbasin transfers.2

The City of Salem built its own water system in the 1970's. Salem relied upon the Roanoke River, and when a new water treatment was constructed in 2003 the city also dug wells to use local groundwater as a second source. In 1979, the Matthews Electroplating site two miles upstream of Salem was designated as a Superfund hazardous waste site by the Environmental Protection Agency, after chromium, nickel, and cyanide was discharged into a sinkhole and local wells were contaminated. That heightened awareness of the benefits of having alternative sources of supply.3

Roanoke County initially contracted with the City of Roanoke and City of Roanoke to supply drinking water to new suburban developments and retail centers as the suburbs grew in the county. In the 1980's, Roanoke County officials realized that their needs for drinking water would exceed the future supply, and that the cities could stop their sales.

The various jurisdiction in the region, including Bedford County, examined various possible sources for additional drinking water. One option was to build a pipeline from the Roanoke River to the City of Roanoke's Carvin Cove reservoir. The Roanoke River Carvins Cove Raw Water Interconnect made sense because the river had a surplus of water in the winter, while the watershed for Carvins Cove was tiny and the reservoir had a suplus of storage space.

Another alternative was to build a pipeline from Smith Mountain Lake. There was a large amount of water in that reservoir, though American Electric Power Company would have to be compensated for the loss of electricity that would not be generated if water was diverted before it flowed through the dam.4

Roanoke City, Roanoke County, and the City of Salem chose to partner together, share costs, and build a new reservoir next to the Roanoke River.

The new reservoir was supposed to be located on a tributary just downstream from the confluence of the river's north and south forks, at Lafayette near the border with Montgomery County. To avoid the environmental impacts of damming the main stem of the Roanoke Rriver, the various jurisdictions chose to build a side-stream reservoir on tiny Mill Branch and fill the Spring Hill Reservoir by pumping water from the Roanoke River during periods of high flow. At least 30% of the flow would have to be left in the river at all times, and during the April/May spawning season 40% would be left for the fish.5

Spring Hollow Reservoir was built by Roanoke County in 1996, after the City of Roanoke pulled out of the project
Spring Hollow Reservoir was built by Roanoke County in 1996, after the City of Roanoke pulled out of the project
Source: US Geological Survey (USGS),
Elliston 7.5x7.5 topographic quadrangle (2013)

Plans are only plans, and the rivalries between the cities of Salem and Roanoke are hard to overcome. The proposal to build the Spring Hill Reservoir collapsed after the two cities determined that costs would exceed benefits. In 1994, Roanoke County decided to build the reservoir on its own, proceeding without funding commitments from the cities.

The 1998-99 drought added new pressure on the City of Roanoke, and it almost reached a deal with Roanoke County to create a partnership for managing drinking water. After rainfall increased and the crisis passed, so did the commitment to partner. The plan stalled, but the county proceeded with the new reservoir.

Shortly thereafter during the 2002 drought, water levels in Carvins Cove dropped to record low levels, threatening the City of Roanoke with a water shortage. The city-managed wastewater treatment plant also faced expensive upgrades to meet increasingly-strict water quality standards. The future requirements and costs identified in the 2003 Long Range Water Supply Study supplied the rationale for merging different systems.

In 2004, the utility departments of Roanoke City/County consolidated to form the Western Virginia Water Authority. Franklin County joined in 2009, and Botetourt County in 2015. Together, they share a drinking water system supplied from Spring Hollow Reservoir, Carvins Cove Reservoir, Crystal Spring, Falling Creek Reservoir, Smith Mountain Lake, and multiple wells extracting groundwater. Costs for treating wastewater are allocated based on the amount of sewage sent to the regional facility.6

The City of Salem maintained its independence for drinking water. In 2005, it completed a new drinking water treatment plant with a capacity of 10 million gallons per day, supplied by the Roanoke River plus some groundwater wells.7

The Western Virginia Water Authority discovered in 2014 that its three million gallon concrete underground tank at Crystal Springs (in the City of Roanoke) was leaking 500 gallons a minute, 262 million gallons/year. The total was ten times the amount previously estimated.

That amount of leaking water, already treated to be drinking water quality, was worth $250,000/year. Because the water distribution system had already been expanded, the authority no longer needed the large storage reservoir built in 1905 at Crystal Springs. Building a 300,000 gallon replacement tank, for $1.5 million, would result in $1.5 million in savings within a short payback period of just six years.

25% of the Western Virginia Water Authority's treated drinking water disappears from its system, through leaks or from "nonrevenue water" withdrawn from fire hydrants. The leak at Crystal Spring was one-fifth of the Western Virginia Water Authority system's total loss. Older water systems may lose 40% of the water they treat, while newer systems may lose just 10%.8

the Crystal Spring pump operated from 1905-1958, and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places
the Crystal Spring pump operated from 1905-1958, and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places
Source: Virginia Department of Historic Resources,
Crystal Spring Steam Pumping Station



1. "Town of Vinton v. City of Roanoke," Supreme Court of Virginia, 195 Va. 881 (1954), http://search.lib.virginia.edu/catalog/uva-lib:2237478 (last checked August 26, 2014)
2. "Happy Valley," RIMBA News blog, Roanoke Chapter of the International Mountain Bicycling Association, February 14, 2014, http://articles.wdbj7.com/2011-10-18/dam_30294282 (last checked August 26, 2014)
3. "Matthews Electroplating," Mid-Atlantic Superfund, Environmental Protection Agency, http://rvarc.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/07/water.pdf (last checked August 26, 2014)
4. "Long-Range Water Supply System Study for Bedford County, Botetourt County, Franklin County, Roanoke County, City of Roanoke, City of Salem, and the Town of Vinton," Roanoke Valley-Alleghany Regional Commission, July 18, 2003, pp.4-17, http://rvarc.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/07/water.pdf (last checked August 26, 2014)
5. "Side-stream reservoir ensures water future," American City and County, July 1, 1996, http://americancityandcounty.com/mag/government_sidestream_resrvoir_ensures (last checked August 26, 2014)
6. "Regional Projects," Powerpoint presented at Infrastructure Financing Conference, December 14, 2012, http://www.roanokeva.gov/85256A8D0062AF37/vwContentByKey/N25ZJRMV262JEASEN; "Botetourt County votes to join regional water authority," The Roanoke Times, April 28, 2015, http://www.roanoke.com/news/local/botetourt_county/botetourt-county-votes-to-join-regional-water-authority/article_8653424b-9244-5b65-9fff-4c659ca772f4.html, (last checked April 28, 2015)
7. Water and Sewer Department, City of Salem, http://www.salemva.gov/departments/water/WaterSewerDept.aspx (last checked April 28, 2015)
8. "Major leak to be fixed at Roanoke's Crystal Spring Reservoir," The Roanoke Times, May 20, 2014, http://www.roanoke.com/news/local/roanoke/major-leak-to-be-fixed-at-roanoke-s-crystal-spring/article_ecd8aba4-e083-11e3-a155-001a4bcf6878.html (last checked May 30, 2014)

Drinking Water in Virginia
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