Virginia’s Water Resource Law: A System of Exemptions and Preferences Challenging the Future of Public Health, the Environment, and Economic Development

Jefferson D. Reynolds *

There is plenty of water in Virginia. The problem is there are plenty of people, too. As population growth in the Commonwealth continues to place higher demands on water resources, competition among users naturally rises. Water for energy production, agriculture, domestic, industry, and other uses becomes more difficult to allocate, resulting in winners and losers based on availability of supply. Although Virginia has adopted a permitting framework[1] to improve water resource management, exemptions and preferential treatment provided to riparian landowners and historic users in the Virginia Code are increasingly problematic.[2] These classes benefit from preferred legal status for water without regard to water availability, effects on other users, or whether it is being put to the most beneficial use.

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* Director, Division of Enforcement for the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality. LL.M. (Environment), 1995, George Washington University; J.D., 1990, Hamline University School of Law. Member, State Bars of Virginia and New Mexico. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect any policy or legal position of the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality or any other agency of the Commonwealth of Virginia.

Special thanks to Lara Dresser, J.D., M.L.S, for the thoughtful insights and supporting research that made this article possible.

        [1].    Va. Code Ann. § 62.1-44.2 to -44.34:28 (Repl. Vol. 2014).

        [2].    See id. § 62.1-82 (Repl. Vol. 2014) (Water Power Development); id. § 62.1-243 (Surface Water Management Areas); id. § 62.1-44.15:22 (Surface Water Withdrawals); id. § 62.1-259 to -270 (Groundwater Management Areas and Withdrawals).