Signs of drought can be seen all over Reston: withering flowers, browning lawns and low water levels in Reston's lakes.
But what is a sore sight for Reston boaters and other nature lovers may be a much bigger issue for Lake Anne-area residents.
About 300 homes near historic are cooled by RELAC (Reston Lake Anne Air Conditioning Corporation), a system that uses recirculated lake water.
RELAC is now operated by Aqua Virginia, which says it has brought in a secondary pump to aid operations until water levels are back to normal.
President Ken Knueven says the water level at Lake Anne is about three feet below where it should be. Meanwhile, average July precipitation here is 3.67 inches. As of July 19, 0.76 inches had fallen.
"This is the worst I have seen it," said Knueven, who has lived in Reston for decades.
Knueven, the director for Lake Anne and Tall Oaks, lives in a RELAC-cooled home. He says his home is sufficiently cooled and that Aqua has been "very responsive" to RA's questions, but he is concerned about the lack of a longtime solution.
Aqua Virginia Chief Operating Officer Shannon Becker says the company may bring in a second secondary pump if lake levels get lower.
"Unfortunately, these things have a short-term impact," says Knueven. "If they bring in the second pump, there will be pipes around people's homes and it will limit boating on Lake Anne. Right now. the impact is basically noise. We have a noisy pump right next to the [North Shore] tennis courts and 50 feet from people's homes."
Knueven - as well as several other Lake Anne-area homeowners - are also frustrated that is able to pump large amounts of lake water to its irrigation ponds.
Since Hidden Creek began as a public golf course, it was granted legal water rights when it was built in the 1960s. Hidden Creek is allowed to draw up to 25 million gallons annually into its irrigation pond, says Knueven.
Knueven says he does not know the daily usage amount, he does know that the greens look lush. He says he has had conversations with Hidden Creek General Manager Jon Patrick, asking him to be a good neighbor and cut back on the watering.
"I have no idea whether that has happened," Knueven says. Patrick did not return Reston Patch's phone calls.
Waterview Cluster resident Mary Coombe says she is concerned the water imbalance will affect nearby businesses.
"Hidden Creek is taking the little remaining water from the lake," Coombe said in an email. "Yes, their contract says they have a legal right, but morally? The RELAC system needs a certain amount of water to operate. Also, the boating will stop and the overall enjoyment of the lake (including the restaurants) will cease if the golf course doesn't stop taking all the water. "
RELAC was touted as a state-of-the-art system when it went into use in the mid-1960s. One of its main bonus features: it is quiet and would not interfere with the sounds of nature.
Over the years, though, it has been the subject of lots of criticism in Reston. Among the concerns - it is inefficient, moldy and has issues when the lake levels fall. RA covenants say that those on the RELAC system may not switch to a heat pump or other more conventional system.
In 2005, a petition was signed 160 homes and RA put replacing RELAC to referendum. Residents voted 130-100 to keep the system, falling short of the three-fourths necessary to move it forward.
Last fall, RA adopted a provision that will allow some RELAC users to add a supplemental system - but they must provide a doctor's note, among other items, to show why they need additional cooling.
Aqua Virginia also recently raised rates for residents. The average bill is now $1,000 annually, up from $870, Becker said.
Aqua Virginia has been talking about installing two new cooling towers since shortly after it took over RELAC in 2003. The towers were approved by the RA Design Review Board in January of this year, but remain in the drawing board phase. Aqua Virginia says the estimated costs came in too high and are working on a solution that will not drastically increase rates for customers.
Becker says Aqua is frustrated too. The RELAC system - which may be the only one of its type remaining - takes up time and resources for the company. Low water levels, storm debris and pumps that can overheat and shut down are among the issues Aqua Virginia is facing, he says.
"We have two full time operators working on the system," he said. "That is out or the norm. We are in the water and sewer business. We are not in the AC business, and our operating metric is not typically two people to 300 customers."
"We are working with RA to make sure people are aware of issues and determine what we need to do to go forward."
Knueven says he is organizing a task force to look at RELAC options.
"Aqua Virginia basically inherited RELAC in an acquisition [of many systems]," he said. "RELAC does not sit with their longterm business model. We have to collaborate on what are our best options for us as a community and for them as a business. One thing that is holding us back are covenants that require homes to use RELAC."
Are you a RELAC customer? Do low lake levels concern you? Tell us in the comments.
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