Goodbye, dredging? Brown, Huja, Szakos opt for mega-dam
In September, Charlottesville City Council took a stand in favor of dredging to create more local water supply. But on Tuesday, January 18, the same day that one Albemarle Supervisor alleged that dredging might unleash potentially damaging fumes, City Council took a vote that appears to give Albemarle County and the Nature Conservancy what they want: a mega-reservoir to focus the local water supply in a massive lake that would hug Interstate 64.
Talking about the sacrifices made by previous generations, City Councilor Satyendra Huja–- long the issue's acknowledged swing vote–- gave an impassioned speech in favor of building a large dam in the Ragged Mountain Natural Area. A moment later, fellow Councilor David Brown made a motion favoring the construction of a 30-foot increase in the height of the existing dam, a project that might require clearing 160 acres of mature forest. Councilor Kristen Szakos followed suit with a thumbs-up of her own.
Mayor Dave Norris and fellow Councilor Holly Edwards voted against the dam plan. But what does it all mean?
"Ratepayers will have to pay a lot more," said a clearly perturbed Rebecca Quinn, a water resources engineer who has been speaking out in recent months, asserting that future water projections are based on outdated data.
"It may not be a steak and lobster plan," said Quinn recalling some language once employed about an even larger dam plan, "but it may be Chilean sea bass. It's still way more than what we need for 50 years."
Quinn pointed out that ever since the record-setting 2002 drought, consumers have dramatically curtailed their water use. Indeed, a recent Hook study of over a decade of figures found that total use has fallen 22 percent despite a nine percent climb in population and a 20 percent spike in the number of customers.
But Huja talked of the University of Virginia's recently-announced discussion about expanding faster than in the past, and he said that UVA demand will more than double from 1.5 to 3.1 million gallons per day. Already, UVA–- whose chief executive, Leonard Sandridge, declared his preference for a new dam in December–- consumes 31% of the water sold by the City.
Huja said that he didn't know when he cast his pro-dredging vote in September that the Virginia Department of Water Quality would reject Mayor Norris' dredge-centric plan. Later in the meeting, Norris said the DEQ never rejected his plan. But Huja's calculus clearly fell on receptive ears of two colleagues.
Councilor David Brown has long alleged that UVA and Charlottesville have already achieved the bulk of their water-conservation efforts–- that the community has already plucked the "low-hanging fruit," as Brown once put it. In Council, Brown spoke of the 30-foot dam increase as a good compromise since Norris had suggested 13 feet while the Albemarle Supervisors pressed for 45 feet.
"You sold out the city," an outraged Dede Smith told the Council. "The only role you have to play is to defend the city, and you failed us." [MP3-audio]
Another angry citizen, seeming to doubt Councilor Szakos' knowledge of the issue, asked how many years of water a 30-foot dam might provide. Szakos defended her vote as an attempt to bring closure to the debate and "a way to move forward."
"But I asked a specific question," the citizen, engineer Richard Lloyd, shouted from the gallery.
"You had your time; this is mine," responded Szakos, declining to answer the question.
Mayor Norris said after the vote that the majority's action renders dredging–- something he touted as a simple maintenance operation–- superfluous in the wake of such a massive reservoir.
"I'm disappointed," said Mayor Norris. "But that's democracy."
Reached the following day, Albemarle Board of Supervisors Chair Ann Mallek, pronouncing herself "very glad" about the vote, said she looks forward to "keeping the conversation going."
Mallek is the one who made the comment about methane as an environmentally unfriendly byproduct of dredging, and she says she has seen the gas bubbling up from a lake on her own property. While she doubts it swayed anyone on Council, Mallek says some of the environmental aspects of the dam plan haven't received fair treatment.
For instance, she says that newly-planted trees–- which will be part of multi-million-dollar effort to mitigate the clear-cut forest at Ragged Mountain–- actually sequester more carbon than "older trees that are just hanging out."
Mallek says she hopes that Council's vote for a 30-foot dam gets a little tweaking toward her goal of a still-higher dam. "It's still very sensible," she says, "to do the 42-foot construction even if only filling it 30 feet."
Next steps in the quest for a new reservoir, Mallek says, include obtaining updated data on the I-64 embankments and deciding between a concrete or earthen dam. Another looming decision involves allocating costs between Charlottesville and Albemarle water consumers. Already, County officials have committed their citizens to paying nearly a million dollars for the design of an earthen dam.
"I don't want any City residents to feel," says Mallek, "like they're paying for growth in the County."
-–updated 2:21pm Wednesday, January 19 with Mallek comments and again at 3:45pm with Huja's