Free studies: Firm, Fenwick urge market dredgings
A politician's press conference touting the benefits of mud and a five-year-old business proposal touting the benefits of sand have recently emerged to reinvigorate the debate over the local water supply and spark hope that the Rivanna Reservoir can be dredged for little or no money.
"There is gold in that reservoir," says Bob Fenwick, an independent candidate for Charlottesville City Council. "It's green gold."
Fenwick is an engineer-builder who spent seven years in the Army Corps of Engineers. One month ago at another lake, he showed how hydraulic dredging might expand lakes; on October 2, he showed how dredging might expand wallets.
Standing on a dock about a mile north of the Earlysville Road Bridge, Fenwick told a trio of reporters about a bag of topsoil he bought four days earlier at Lowe's home center for $8.82. Fenwick says a simple dredge–- like an Ellicott Mudcat profiled a year ago in these pages–- can easily produce 1.17 million of such bagfuls with a retail value of $9.4 million by removing just the top three feet of organic material along a one-mile strip of the seven-mile-long water body.
"This material," said Fenwick, "as any farmer can tell you, is the best material to till into land– or, for homeowners, into their garden."
Fenwick contends that as long as the fuel, labor, and equipment cost less than the revenue, dredging should be a profitable business.
But Fenwick's views aren't resonating with one of dredging's key supporters in local government, Charlottesville Mayor Dave Norris. An incumbent, Norris, along with fellow Democrat Kristin Szakos, opposes Fenwick in the November election.
"I think he's trying to score some political points," says Norris, "but it's a much more complicated issue than he makes it out to be."
One dredge-willing team outside the political fray, however, is Blue Ridge Sand, a company formed after the 2002 drought for the sole purpose of putting together a market-based dredging proposal. This firm focuses primarily on the sediments that have shrunk the upper reaches of the reservoir and has built a unique contraption that sorts rocky sediments in a fraction of the space usually needed for "de-watering."
Mark Fendig, one half of the Blue Ridge Sand team and a professional dredger, went out with a Rivanna Water & Sewer Authority official in 2003 or 2004 to take six core samples. What he and business partner Mitch King found pleased them: lots of tiny rocks.
"These sediments have market value," says King in a September 29 interview, noting that he shared his findings with area concrete and asphalt companies. "They said they'd take as much of it as we could produce."
In the spring of 2004, Blue Ridge Sand offered its proposal to remove 695,000 cubic yards of material from the reservoir. Because the amount is just one-seventh of the volume a full restorative dredging might entail, their proposal has been blasted by dredge foes as mere "opportunistic dredging."
The men of Blue Ridge Sand don't wince from the moniker– especially when the lead alternative is a controversial dam-reservoir plan that rips apart a prized natural area and which many of its backers concede might cost $200 million.
"I just don't think you you should spend 200 million this year if you're not gonna need it for 30 years," says King. "If dredging can buy us 20 or 30 years, that seems like a good investment."
Norris maintains that gaining a few decades worth of water capacity isn't as important as the course on which he has embarked: a full restoration of the 43-year-old Reservoir, an effort that previous studies show could raise local capacity to 14.3 million gallons per day, about 50 percent more than the community currently uses.
Norris says he finds a year-ago concept from a firm called DDR intriguing for its willingness to dump the dredged material into an old quarry, and he stands by the idea of spending a six-figure sum on a dredging study.
While local officials try to whittle down the $700,000 level, Fenwick and Blue Ridge Sand say they've already studied the situation. For free. And one thing the officials can't deny is that by the time the mega-dam is readied for construction, the Rivanna Authority will have spent $12 million on studies before adding a single drop of capacity.
The last dredging study, conducted by a now-ousted firm called Gannett Fleming, declared that fully dredging the snake-like Reservoir might cost as much as $223 million, a sum that exceeds a recent contract to dredge the Pacific side of the Panama Canal.
"Do not complete the study," says Fenwick. "Just dredge the reservoir."
Despite all that, City Council moved forward on Monday, October 5 by appropriating $300,000 toward a pared-down dredging study.
–last updated 5:51pm Tuesday, October 6