The old Ragged Mountain reservoir as seen in early August.
New data show that local water consumption has fallen to near-record lows– an ironic launch for a new multi-million-dollar reservoir whose capacity may not be needed for decades.
Aerial photographs shot in early August show dozens of acres of scoured land and felled trees at the Ragged Mountain Natural Area. A Charlottesville government-owned tract long leased to the waterworks for a pair of reservoirs, the site was turned over to crews from a North Carolina-based contractor earlier this year for construction of a new reservoir after plans to save the old one failed to muster political support.
A reporter's investigation last year found questionable science and potential conflicts of interest surrounding well-funded non-profit groups led by the Nature Conservancy, which parlayed million-dollar corporate sponsorships into devising the Charlottesville water plan as a national model in preserving river flows. Critics have suggested that Charlottesville will get muddier water at a higher cost.
In April, Thalle Construction of Hillsborough, NC, won the right to proceed with a $21.5 million dam. Two months later, the waterworks closed the books on a year during which total urban water production– including leaks and public use– averaged 9.45 million gallons per day. That's a 1.2 percent drop from the previous year and a twenty percent drop since water use peaked in 1999 at 11.93 million gallons per day.
During the same 13-year span, the number of customers grew by 25 percent, as there were just 25,596 urban water hookups in 1999; today there are 31,889.
The reason more customers can consume less water is a remarkable drop in per-capita consumption. Charlottesvillians have gotten so water-thrifty that even the projections produced at the behest of the key official pressing the plan, Rivanna Water and Sewer Authority director Tom Frederick, show that demand won't outstrip supply until some point approaching the year 2030.
Asked to comment on the prospect that he might have overseen a project whose urgency has evaporated, Frederick had this to say: "Our planning for future water supply need is appropriately based upon long-term forecasting."
But that view isn't shared by all citizens. A private hydrologist who unsuccessfully fought to derail the Conservancy-backed plan, Rebecca Quinn says that Frederick should have saved money and environmental havoc by relying on an existing gravity-fed pipeline instead of creating a system that's dependent on a new 9.5-mile water pipe that would become the county's third largest river.
"The continued drop in water use despite population increases," says Quinn, "is clear evidence that other motives were behind the campaign to force on us the expensive and destructive dam and uphill-pipeline scheme."
Thalle Construction estimates that the new dam will be finished in a little under two years. Construction date of the new pipeline to keep it filled remains unknown.