Dredge time: Council to save reservoir... and dam when ready
After an appeal from the victor in a car-of-the-future contest and about two score of other dredge fans, the long-running water debate reached a cascade in City Hall on Monday, September 20 with a cobbled-together compromise that focuses on dredging the silt-choked Rivanna Reservoir but first fixes the broken Ragged Mountain dam with a 13-foot rise.
The unanimous decision came at 11:45pm, nearly five hours after the City Council hearing began.
Automobile inventor Oliver Kuttner was one of the first speakers during the marathon event. "Building things to peak use is wasteful," said Kuttner. "Maintenance is a really good idea."
Fellow dredge fan and HotCakes bistro co-owner Keith Rosenfeld tried to score guilt points on the probable swing vote, Councilor Satyendra Huja, by pointing out that Huja once offered to take him out for an Indian dinner while preventing him from cutting down a tree blocking the HotCakes sign.
"Now we're talking 50,000 trees," Rosenfeld said, "and I want to take you up on that dinner."
Asked after the meeting if the compromise was a victory for the dredge-lovers, Rosenfeld was cautiously optimistic. "The devil's in the details," he said.
At issue was whether Charlottesville, which owns all the local reservoirs, should turn over at least 150 acres of land for an expansion of one of them designed by the Nature Conservancy. For at least two years, Mayor Dave Norris and a citizens group have been calling the Conservancy plan destructive, expensive, and unnecessary.
"This has been an interesting experience," said former Albemarle Supervisor Sally Thomas, who spoke in favor of the dam/pipeline plan. "I think I can say in 16 years of sitting on the Board of Supervisors I never heard such hateful statements about the city as I've heard here tonight made about county."
Her allegation brought a smattering of quizzical sighs and hisses. The Hook checked the tapes to find hateful statements, but the sauciest comment came from one-time City Council candidate Stratton Salidas who said, "There's a huge difference between being a good neighbor and a patsy."
It was actually dam/pipeline supporters who did most of the scolding. For instance, Ben Bates of Earlysville called dredge supporters "the group of no," and local veterinarian/county waterworks board member Liz Palmer urged the Council, "Please don't be dissuaded by a small group that are very well organized."
As it turned out, the number of dredge supporters topped dredge opponents–- there were about 60 speakers in all–- by a ratio of two to one. And the dam/pipeline supporters had some pretty big guns: the Chamber of Commerce, the aforementioned former Supervisor, the League of Women Voters, and–- as always–- the Nature Conservancy.
The vote is widely considered a victory for Mayor Norris, who overcame vociferous opposition from the county and from within Council. Councilor David Brown, for instance, has long dismissed the notion that water conservation–- which has already stunned officials by falling 28 percent since 1999–- might continue to fall. During the meeting, he talked of his own rain barrels and low-flow toilets as an example of what "everyone" already possesses. But even ardent dredge fan and former Planning Commissioner Betty Mooney admitted to Brown from her spectator seat that she owns neither. ("Well, shame on you," laughed Brown.)
The water debate has been in high gear ever since the waterworks director claimed that dredging might cost as much as $223 million. Mooney's group, Citizens for a Sustainable Water Plan, recently heard from a dredge salesman who alleged that a 14-year dredging program might cost as little as $16 million–- and even less if the extracted soil and sand could be successfully marketed.
The Citizens group includes an engineer named Richard Lloyd who has recently been running ads for what he calls a "small bites" dredging program. And the group has asserted that the dam/pipeline plan, originally priced at $142 million, could soar over $400 million if interest payments are included.
In recent days, as the so-called "Norris Plan" was gaining momentum, some decision-makers began seeing their dreamed-of dam slipping away. The county waterworks, the Albemarle County Service Authority, sent an emissary to Council to say that it would pay for all of the water supply. And Albemarle Supervisor Ken Boyd, who works as a financial planner, appeared in Council Chambers ready to speak, but he left the meeting before any action was taken.
One of the more humorous pro-dredging speakers was Ernie Reed. He brought a yellow bucket to the lectern and proceeded to explain how an engineer, upon finding sand in the bucket, might attempt to expand it by constructing higher sides and a modified handle.
"It's good to seek simple solutions," said Reed. "I do know that I don't need a chainsaw to slice a pat of butter, and I do know that the solution to our water problems could start with something as simple as pulling out a handful of sand."
And then there was Henry Weinschenk. The owner of Express Car Wash, Weinschenk knows what it's like to get pushed out of business during a water shortage. He didn't stake a position in any camp–- except the action camp.
"What we're missing is the bucket we need for dry periods," said Weinschenk. "I'm nervous. I have 23 people depending on my business for their livelihoods. So please do something."
Asked later if the vote might be a rebuke to his leadership, the man who bandied about the quarter-billion-dollar dredging estimate, Rivanna Water and Sewer Authority director Tom Frederick, downplayed his role.
"As you well know," Frederick writes in an email, "the water supply plan has never been my plan or any one individual's plan, but rather the community's plan developed after many public meetings and extensive public input."