$249,000 skiddoo? Pipe study eludes elections
Despite a request from a prominent critic of the controversial plan to replace three existing reservoirs with one that would adjoin Interstate 64, the study of the pipeline needed to make the scheme possible appears to be slipping past the local elections, according to a document submitted last month by the head of the Rivanna Water & Sewer Authority.
"The review of the conceptual plan for a future South Fork to Ragged Mountain pipeline was estimated to be completed by the end of 2009," Authority director Tom Frederick writes in a late September response to a reporter's question. "RWSA entered into a contract in late August with the firm Wiley/Wilson to perform the review."
Questions about how the $25,000 review is going could not be immediately answered, as Wiley/Wilson's project manager, Tim Slaydon, is hiking the Appalachian Trail and not expected back until November 2, according to a member of his office, who, on call back, repeated a rule that has become the norm among Authority contractors: that all info, except credentials, must come from the Authority.
Meanwhile, Frederick–- who has drawn criticism for spending $515 per hour on the Authority lawyer–- declines to provide further documents to the Hook, noting our lateness on a $38.90 invoice from late August.
"As permitted by law," writes Frederick, citing a right under Virginia statute, "we are setting your current request aside until we receive payment for this invoice." He asserts that no legal expenses were incurred in making the determination.
One of the chief questions is how much it will cost to acquire a 40-foot strip of land as the path of the pipe. The prior pipeline investigation has drawn scorn for budgeting just $249,000 for the entire 9.5-mile length.
"That's ridiculous," says former City Councilor Kevin Lynch. "That's probably off by a factor of 100. It cost VDOT close to $30 million to acquire a shorter route."
Indeed, the Authority had hoped to piggy-back much of the pipeline along the land VDOT acquired for a now-moribund road called the Western Bypass. Last year, after skepticism was raised, Frederick conceded that the Authority no longer recommends a specific pipeline path.
Lynch, brandishing an April 2006 Frederick email that notes "the timing is bad for a deep discussion of this just before an election," contends that pushing controversy out of election cycles is nothing new for Frederick's Authority.
"Even though they're supposed to be non-political," says Lynch, "they have a history of avoiding things the public may be interested in."
Indeed, Frederick's board declined to revisit the pipeline numbers until the City forced them to. Lynch would be particularly interested in seeing an overhaul of the previous pipeline budget, which was outlined in 2005 by Gannett Fleming.
Infamously, the Pennsylvania-based firm underestimated the cost of the dam– something it later won a $3.1 million contract to design– by nearly two-thirds. The firm also overestimated the cost of a dredging alternative– something that might have quashed the dam plan– by nearly tenfold.
Besides the failure to budget much more than a quarter million dollars for gaining permanent access to an estimated 63 parcels of land, other problems with Gannett Fleming's pipeline work include failing to budget anything for chemicals and maintenance, and assuming electrical costs over 50 years at just eight cents per kilowatt-hour, a rate that's less than what some customers currently pay.
"To ensure accountability, they should start the process of acquiring land for the pipeline as soon as practical," contends electronics magnate Bill Crutchfield. "They should not pass a political 'hot potato' to future councilors and supervisors."
Despite the omissions and potential underestimates, backers of the single-reservoir plan, which was conceived by the Nature Conservancy as a national model, include all of the candidates for Albemarle County Supervisor seats. Even Republican Rodney Thomas, whose refusal to sign a pre-election pledge vexed an effort by plan backers to remove the water plan as an issue for voters, has expressed support for the single reservoir–- while its own designers concede that without the pipeline, it provides less water than merely dredging the existing Rivanna Reservoir.
Until the updated cost arrives, the Authority pegs the pipeline cost at $56 million as part of a planned $142.8 million water plan. However, fractured bedrock and other site problems, including protecting I-64 embankments, appear to have driven the scheme over $200 million.
Meanwhile, a downward trend in water consumption appears on its way to putting 2009 in the record books for the lowest water use in recent history–- a staggering 22 percent drop accomplished, ironically, despite a 19 percent climb in customer connections.
In the City of Charlottesville, however, two candidates have put the water issue front and center. Incumbent Democrat and Mayor Dave Norris has been pushing for better dredging information. And after getting fed up with pro-dam information from City Manager Gary O'Connell, who sits on the Authority board, Norris led an effort earlier this year to seat two elected officials on that board.
Another City Council candidate, a challenger, has made water supply a central campaign theme. Independent Bob Fenwick, a veteran of the Army Corps of Engineers, has portrayed dredging as both simple and potentially profitable. At his third press conference on the topic, he satirized the studies that have become the hallmark of the Authority.
"Because most of these presentations would not be complete without an expensive expert study with a lot of zeroes, I'm going to present my invoice for what I just did," said Fenwick, holding up a bill for $000,000.00. "I'll let the relevant agencies," he deadpanned on camera, "figure out how to split that."
By contrast, the Authority appears on track to have spent, from the 2002 drought to the start of the controversial dam, about $12 million on water supply consultants. That's before turning a shovel of dirt– or providing a single additional drop of water.