State blames staffing shortage for Surry farmer’s water woes

Published 4:59 pm Friday, July 5, 2024

When the 40-year-old well that’s provided drip irrigation to Surry County farmer Michael Drewry’s blueberry orchard began pumping out nothing but silt in February, Drewry contacted the Virginia Department of Health in hopes of securing a permit to drill a new one.

State law mandates no one construct, rehabilitate or abandon a private well without a written permit from VDH – a process state officials say should take days, but Drewry says took three months.

After multiple phone calls and emails to VDH, Drewry received his permit on May 31 and by June 13 the well was drilled, but he fears it may be too little, too late.

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“Blueberry bushes have shallow roots and simply need moist roots during summer months,” he said.

During the second to last weekend in June, when Drewry was still without final VDH approval to hook the new well to his irrigation system, temperatures soared into the upper 90s as a heat dome descended over multiple states.

“I watched the berries shrivel up and fall,” Drewry said. “We have closed our u-pick patch and hope to have water soon.”

According to Lance Gregory, director of the VDH Division of Onsite Water and Wastewater Services, the state agency is required to issue standard private well permits within 60 days of receiving an application, though the average turnaround time in 2023 was eight days. Agricultural wells, he said, should qualify under state regulations for what VDH refers to as an Express Class IV construction permit, which requires VDH to issue the required documentation within one business day of an application’s receipt.

But the process has been slowed by what Toinette Waldon, environmental health manager for the VDH’s Crater Health District, described as “severe staffing shortages.”

Surry County’s 6,500 residents account for less than 5% of the 150,000 people across the 1,800-square-mile Crater District, which serves five predominantly rural counties and the cities of Petersburg, Hopewell and Emporia.

“The environmental health specialist (EHS) position in Surry County was recently filled but has not had a trained EHS since April 2023,” Waldon said. “Due to the staffing shortages, staff from other areas have been maintaining onsite services ensuring continuity of operations. This facilitated an average of 11.5 days processing time, which exceeds 15 business days for septic system permits and 60 days for private well permits.”

Drewry said his first call to the VDH office in Surry went unanswered. After downloading the permit application from the VDH website, he sent a follow-up email inquiring about whom to send it to, and said he was told only that “several people” handle well permits in Surry.

He then contacted David Creason, owner of Creason Well Service Inc. in neighboring Isle of Wight County, whom Drewry had hand-deliver his $300 permit application to the VDH Surry office.

Creason said Drewry isn’t his only customer to report frustration with obtaining timely permits, particularly in Surry.

“We’ve had people wait 30 days where they were out of water,” Creason said. “It’s definitely an ongoing problem there.”

Creason confirmed he’d taken Drewry’s application and money to the Surry VDH office, but said it “was still a good long time before they got it straight.”

Drewry eventually got desperate and contacted county and VDH staff from Dinwiddie County, another Crater District locality where he serves as county attorney.

“Remarkably they were responsible and after three months of efforts, I finally obtained the needed permit,” Drewry said.

“In the last month, we have been able to fill most positions,” Waldon said. “Due to the extensive training required to work independently, onsite services are currently being handled by the environmental health supervisor.”

Waldon noted, as Gregory had, that residents who qualify for an emergency or express well permit have the option to request expedited processing, but “this is a separate process that must be identified on the application to ensure priority processing,” she said.

The permit form is available at Obtaining the required permits ultimately falls to the landowner, not the well driller, Gregory said.