Suddenly Satyendra: Huja may hold key to region's water future
After a career spent tinkering within the limits of his job as the Charlottesville planning director, freshman City Councilor Satyendra Huja suddenly finds himself the decider in a contentious cross-border debate that some critics fear could double local water bills. City Council has set a Monday, September 20 public hearing to determine whether to dredge the main existing reservoir, build a massive new dam, or both.
"I guess I'm the swing vote, and that's not a bad place to be," Huja says in an interview that comes just a day after a dredge equipment executive suggests that Charlottesville has become the laughingstock of the dredging industry for allowing consultants to talk the city out of saving its existing reservoir.
Four years ago, Charlottesville and Albemarle officially dismissed dredging as a viable option after a Pennsylvania-based engineering firm claimed the cost might top $223 million. However, following a recent boat tour, the regional sales manager for Ellicott Dredges walked away with a different opinion.
"The scale and scope of the project was so much smaller than I had imagined," Steve Miller told reporters and officials during a September 15 meeting, one day after his tour of the silt-choked Rivanna Reservoir, the major drinking water lake for the Charlottesville-Albemarle urban areas.
Miller told the gathering in the main library that he often travels to municipalities to perform a "sanity check" when he hears numbers that don't make sense to him, such as that $223 million, which came from a firm called Gannett Fleming. Even a thriftier prognosis from a Richmond-area firm called HDR struck Miller as needlessly overwrought with its call–- for dredging 1.4 million cubic yards of material–- to spend up to $40 million and let dewatering operations sprawl across dozens of acres of land.
Miller offered to sell local water officials one of his firm's "Dragons" along with all pumps, piping, and dewatering equipment for under $2 million. He says such an operation, run by a team of three locally-hired machine operators, could easily extract 100,000 cubic yards annually for just $1 million a year in salaries, fuel, and other expenses. That even includes the dewatering, says Miller, noting that the dewatering machines would occupy less than an acre.
Miller also told the gathering that selling off the dirt and sand could bring revenue to further reduce the cost. J.W. Clayton & Son, the venerable topsoil and mulch operation near the Mechums River near Crozet retails the stuff for $330 for a six cubic yard load. Even if the wholesale price is half that, simple math suggests that topsoil–- dredged for $10 per yard–- might sell for over $25 per yard. (Luck Stone sells B-grade sand, another one of the spoils of dredging for $31.50 per yard.)
While Miller conceded that market conditions can vary, he issued a warning that the option to dredge may not last forever.
"Pretty soon," said Miller, "you won't have a lake to dredge."
UVA Rowing Coach Kevin Sauer needed no reminder.
"It's a travesty," said Sauer, expressing frustration that the Reservoir hasn't been dredged since its 1966 construction. "Rowing team or not, this is a really important resource."
Albemarle Supervisor Dennis Rooker, longtime defender of the new dam proposal and one of the members of a body created last year to downplay dredging as a water resource, took a dimmer view of the dredging option.
"Kevin," said Rooker, "are you gonna be covering some of the cost of that?"
Sauer replied that at a minimum the UVA boathouse/rowing club property would offer its site for dewatering.
All this comes after a whirlwind of revelations over the past two years including soaring water rates, a memo showing that the new dam won't work without a 9.5-mile pipeline, and a longterm downward trend that since 1999 has seen local water consumption–- despite increasing population–- falling by 22 percent.
Charlottesville resident Dede Smith, yet another person present for the meeting, contends that a 1992 federal law has begun painlessly reducing water usage via new low-flow showerheads, toilets, and washing machines every time an older home gets renovated. Recently, Smith learned to her horror that the pipeline–- necessary to make the dam work–- isn't even included in the local waterworks' capital improvement plan.
"This water plan will double your water bill," says Smith.
In January, Charlottesville Mayor Dave Norris defied waterworks director Tom Frederick by opting to hire independent engineers to study the strength of another existing reservoir. (Frederick had tried to hire Schnabel Engineering, the firm already commissioned to build the new dam, which would require clearing about 150 acres of trees on City land).
Now, sources indicate that Norris, the one person who has blocked the rush to create a new reservoir by also commissioning studies on conservation and dredging, has been outgunned–- that one of his fellow City Councilors pushed the issue onto the September 20 agenda with the belief that Councilor Huja will join longtime dam proponent David Brown and Democratic insider Kristin Szakos in voting to let the new dam happen. Norris and Councilor Holly Edwards may be pushed into a deal that builds a forest-destroying dam.
It's not soon enough for the Charlottesville Regional Chamber of Commerce which joins the Nature Conservancy, which spearheaded the dam/pipeline plan, in endorsing that plan as the one providing the most water for the money.
“Despite all the extra study, additional public spending, and never-ending debate, little has been added and nothing significant has been demonstrated to cause our community to walk away from the 2006 unanimous public approvals of the water supply plan,” says Chamber Chair W. Rod Gentry in a release. That view disappoints equipment-moving Miller and others who have been pushing dredging as a cheaper and more sustainable alternative.
"It's not rocket science," said Miller, a nuclear engineer by training. He points out that his firm, which has been selling dredging equipment since 1885, frequently sends him to conferences organized by the Western Dredging Association, or WEDA. "It's certainly going to make a good story at the next WEDA meeting."
On September 18, on his blog, Norris clarifies what he really wants (and what makes him the most fiscally conservative leader in this whole debate). He calls for dredging the Rivanna Reservoir at a slow pace–- "using a market-oriented approach in which we only dredge as much fill as we can sell or use at any given time–- and wants to add a small pool increase/repair to the Ragged Mountain Reservoir.
–-last updated with Norris proposal and Clayton pricing around 6:30pm, Saturday, September 18. Luck Stone pricing a coupla days later.