Pipe peeve: RWSA diverts Sugar Hollow water
Since the 1920s, Charlottesville's purest water has flowed downhill directly from the Sugar Hollow Reservoir via a 13.5-mile cast-iron pipeline. The mountain water is so pure, in fact, that the treatment plant into which it flows has required minimal treatment. Those days may be over.
Without public input or discussion, the tail of that pipeline was recently cut off and the water diverted into a section of the under-construction Ragged Mountain Reservoir. Besides breaking the urban water system's direct connection to its purest source, the move also kills what one councilor calls an important "safety valve" should the new reservoir ever get contaminated.
"Sugar Hollow just got its last lifeline cut off," says City Councilor Dede Smith, a long-time opponent of the approved Water Plan. Last week, Smith peppered Rivanna Water and Sewer Authority director Tom Frederick with questions about the decision to reroute the water.
"It must now go through another reservoir to get into the system," Smith says, "a much dirtier way to go and subject to water loss from leaks and evaporation."
As Frederick explains, the section of the old Sugar Hollow pipe that was removed passed within the "footprint" of the new earthen dam.
"The options," Frederick contends in an email to the Hook, "were to relocate that section of the pipe around the footprint area of the new dam, or allow the water in the pipe to pass through the new reservoir and new intake structure and pipeline, reconnecting with the existing pipeline just below the new dam."
As Frederick emphasized at the June 3rd Council meeting, the decision saved the community nearly $2 million— what Frederick says relocation of the pipe would have cost.
"This new arrangement is in service now, and is functioning very well," he added.
Smith, however, says she's "not at all" satisfied with Frederick's explanation. She cites engineering studies dating back to the 1920s as well as a more recent report from the Virginia Department of Health urging "maximum utilization" of the high quality mountain water from the Moormans River, whose watershed is the high-elevation forests of the Shenandoah National Park. Such clean water now will be diluted into the new reservoir which straddles Interstate 64 near Charlottesville.
What's more, Smith worries that removal of the separate pipeline into the Observatory Treatment Plant— what she calls a "safety valve"— threatens the security of our water supply, should the new reservoir ever become contaminated. As Smith mentions, a "spill boom" the RWSA envisions for capturing a potential fuel spill off the Interstate has yet to be installed.
However, as Frederick points out in an email to interested officials, the highway already lay within the Ragged Mountain watershed.
"The risk has been there since the 1960s," writes Frederick. "For that matter, I-64 also crosses Ivy Creek and the Mechums River."
"The fact that the final plan includes a boom means they have recognized the risk," counters Smith. "Yes, they claim this risk has always been there, but we had a mechanism in place to bypass the Ragged Mountain Reservoir."
What's more, Smith suggests the decision to divert and dilute the fresh Sugar Hollow water strikes her as unplanned and failing to account for the implications. Smith later asked Frederick when he decided.
"I don’t remember the precise moment and am curious why that detail now seems important," Frederick responded to Smith in an email, "but I do recall it came up during a design progress meeting."
Smith also asked if the decision to remove the pipe was ever presented to the RWSA Board.
"Cost estimates were frequently reviewed with the Board," replied Frederick, "but I do not recall to what extent this specific detail was discussed."
Smith is particularly concerned about how the additional chemicals will affect water quality. One year ago, the RWSA had plans to introduce chloramines, a mixture of chlorine and ammonia, into the local water supply. Reports showed the controversial chemical had drastically increased lead levels in communities like Washington, D.C., but public outcry about the plan caused the RWSA to change course, choosing a more expensive, but safer, carbon filtration system— one that was already being planned for use in Crozet and Scottsville.
Smith pressed Frederick on how the water supply would be protected from contamination without a "safety valve."
Frederick pointed out that the South Fork Reservoir, Sugar Hollow Reservoir, and the North Fork intake will all remain parts of the system and that if the South Fork pipeline– an unbudgeted part of the planned system– is ever built, resiliency will be greatly expanded by the capability of delivering South Fork water directly to the Observatory treatment plant, or Ragged Mountain Reservoir water directly to the South Fork treatment plant.
"That allows either reservoir to be completely isolated by a closed valve from the rest of the water system if a problem is ever suspected without reducing any capacity at any of the [treatment plants]," Frederick informed Smith. "That will be greater resiliency than the Urban Water system has ever had in the past."
"When is this fairy tale going to happen?" groans Smith, citing a report in which she documents what she sees as the likely outcome.
"The original plan did not include the South Fork pipeline, and I contend they have no plans to build it," she says. "The 1.5 billion gallons of water to fill the expanded [Ragged Mountain] Reservoir will come out of the Moormans and continue to come out of the Moormans, while the South Fork Rivanna Reservoir dies."
As for chemicals used to treat the water, Frederick said the RWSA Board will be presented with the "hybrid" option for a mixture of carbon filtering and chlorine, as well as the more expensive 100 percent carbon filtering option, and that nothing there has been decided yet.
Of course, when it comes time to fill the new Ragged Mountain Reservoir, Smith says she'll have many more questions.
"There will be much more serious questions about using so much more water from the Moormans and the Sugar Hollow Reservoir, "she says. "I have a lot of data about that, but that's a future article."Attached Documents:Read more on: rwsa