Hard path: Waterworks to approve new firm, new spending
Despite the plea of Albemarle County's own water resources expert to follow a so-called "softer" path, the unelected Rivanna Water & Sewer Authority board appears poised to approve a contract to a new firm to design the controversial reservoir that would supply the bulk of the future water supply, a project whose now over-$200 million bloat hasn't dimmed the board's enthusiasm for it.
Documents released in advance of the Tuesday, September 22 meeting show that Authority Director Tom Frederick hoped to gain his board's approval to ink a contract with Schnabel Engineering for a fixed cost of $1.6 million plus up to $544,765 for geotechnical field testing and some public outreach.
Instead, he won approval for just $1.42 million to the Virginia-based firm.
"We're hoping to assist Rivanna and the community to build a safe and cost-effective dam," says Schnabel project administrator Chris Webster.
But what about concerns that the project–- which some contend has been rendered unnecessary by a decade of lower water usage–- might represent a waste of money?
"No," says Webster. "I think the proposal that we've given to Rivanna will provide good value."
When the board approves the spending with Schnabel Tuesday, the dam design cost has shot to $3.12 million, as $1.7 million has already been paid to Gannett Fleming for dam design. The total is about the same as the initial contract with Gannett Fleming though it's 22 percent more than originally budgeted.
"It's just throwing money down the toilet," says former Charlottesville Planning Commissioner Betty Mooney, who went to City Council on Monday, September 21 with another member of Citizens for a Sustainable Water Plan to urge a wider halt to the project than the limited halt that City Council issued last November.
The Citizens group hoped City Council, which owns all the local reservoirs, would follow the lead of Newport News, which just killed its own controversial reservoir after reports that it is unnecessary. Here in Charlottesville, however, the Citizens have watched the rush to dam in disbelief, as continuing rounds of data show a community using less water.
The just-released figures, for instance, show that RWSA sold only 10.3 million gallons a day in August. By contrast, during the four years leading up to the 2002 drought, the daily August tally was 12.27 million gallons a day.
"They haven't done any testing to see if it can be built before throwing money at the design," says Mooney. "This is the same mistake Gannett Fleming made."
Webster won't have to live under that credibility crisis, as some of the spending appears to pay for rock testing.
"It's not going to be a Gannett Fleming design with tweaks by Schnabel," says Webster. "It's going to be a Schnabel design."
Webster confirms that the Schnabel proposal intends to obtain rock on-site, an excavation that he says will come from the footprint of the new reservoir, so it won't leave a lasting stain on the landscape.
One thing Schnabel won't be asked to provide is a cost estimate for the pipeline that Gannett Fleming engineers decreed as necessary to fill the reservoir. The pipeline became something of an embarrassment last summer after an electronics magnate began asking questions, and former City Councilor Kevin Lynch began supplying answers.
Among the omissions that led netrepreneur William Crutchfield to blast the scheme as Charlottesville's own "Bridge to Nowhere" were the omission of any budgeting for chemicals, budgeting just $249,000 for acquiring 9.5 miles of easements, assuming that the pipe could follow the moribund Western Bypass, and hoping that electric rates would rise only 50 percent in 50 years. Dominion Virginia Power blew the uphill river's budget last year when, before the project even began, the company raised its so-called "fuel rate" an incredible 74 percent.
Authority Director Frederick maintains that recent water usage numbers should not steer his board away from long-term projections that demand the new reservoir-pipeline.
Webster says that unlike Gannett Fleming and dredge study nominee HDR–- both of which were asked by Frederick to refrain from talking to reporters–- Webster has won the right to speak about the engineering aspects of the project with media.
Amen to that!
–last updated 5:52pm Tuesday, September 22