Can kicked? Waste decried as dredge study firm named
The Rivanna Water & Sewer Authority has just chosen a Nebraska-based engineering firm to study dredging the Rivanna Reservoir. However, to one of the people who offered to actually perform a dredging for a fraction of the price the Authority's experts originally predicted, it's just more money and time wasted by the Authority board and its director, Tom Frederick, who has staked his reputation on blocking dredging.
"They could have said, 'Let's get it dredged,'" says engineer Pat Enright. "Instead, they said, 'Let's study it again.'"
A year ago, Enright was heading a consortium of firms that offered to dredge the Reservoir for about a tenth of the last estimate cited by Frederick. Having moved to another company, Enright now says he feels free to speak out over what he considers the folly of study over action.
"I'm just not that impressed with Tom and how he approaches projects of this magnitude because he's gonna get another half-answer," says Enright, who made his comments in an interview August 5, the same day Frederick announced the selection of the Omaha-based study firm.
"Most of the information will prove to be useless," says Enright, calling the latest study a "smokescreen," a way, he claims, "to kick the can down the road, so they can start building the dam."
The dam in question is a 2.2 billion-gallon behemoth that Frederick envisions as replacing all three of the urban water system's existing reservoirs with a single, interstate highway-hugging lake that would require felling about 54,000 trees on 180 acres.
The project has sparked numerous controversies, including its dependence on building a 36-inch, $56-million pipeline to move water over nine miles uphill from the Rivanna River, a project that–- although essential to filling the dam–- budgets just $249,000 for acquiring all 9.5 miles of land. And the $56-million pipeline figure inexplicably is not included in the Authority's five-year capital spending program.
Because Charlottesville owns the proposed dam site, Ragged Mountain Natural Area, City Council could halt the project in a heartbeat. Mayor Dave Norris, its chief public detractor, has chosen instead to fight more gently by seeking more information. And the project manager for the chosen study firm, HDR, contends that he'll supply plenty of that.
"We don't know exactly what we'll find," says HDR's Carey Burch from his office in Glen Allen. "In our experience, where projects run into difficulty is when you look for that upland place where you put the sediment."
Citizen Enright, however, maintains that with marine engineering experience and its own dormant quarry astride the reservoir, his former consortium had all bases covered.
"We had the land, we had the technology," says Enright. "The only thing we didn't have was the solicitation to respond to.
"It was always my belief," he continues, that the Authority "should have put out a solicitation that said, 'Take X cubic yards of sediment out of the reservoir. Tell us where you're going to put it, and deal with the permitting.'"
Instead, Enright points out, dredging got pushed into the arms of a task force whose members, including avowed dam/pipeline defender Sally Thomas as the chair, ended up downplaying dredging as a way to augment water supply and calling it better suited for specialized goals such as recreation.
"There's no question," says former Charlottesville vice-mayor Kevin Lynch, "that Rivanna's interest is to bury any discussion of dredging."
Now part of a pro-dredging group called Citizens for a Sustainable Water Plan, Lynch says he actually hails the impending study, even as he laments the spending that led to it, which included having the Authority's $515-an-hour lawyer sit through four hours of presentations and deliberations over which dredge study firm to choose.
"This is our money they're playing with," says Lynch, "and is not to be used for any vanity projects, which is what the dam is."
The Authority has paid a single Pennsylvania firm, Gannett Fleming, $2.17 million for studies including development of the dam-pipeline scheme and and another $1.71 million toward a planned $3.1 million dam design contract (although the Authority recently announced that it intends to hire a new firm to replace Gannett Fleming).
Enright says he was tempted to help draft a Request for Proposals for dredging.
"If I had gotten involved in writing the RFP," says Enright, "then there was a chance that I might not be able to bid for the contract."
Actually, no. The Authority awarded the dam design contract to Gannett Fleming despite all the firm's work leading to it.
The Authority's credibility took another hit last year when its last estimate for dredging the 366-acre Rivanna Reservoir topped $223 million, exceeding a contemporary contract to dredge the Pacific side of the Panama Canal. As numerous dredgers expressed drop-jawed disbelief and insisted the job could be done for much less, Enright stepped forward with a detailed 15-page concept that proposed not only dredging but dealing with all the permitting and spoils for just $24-29 million.
The controversy continued at the Authority's last board meeting July 28 when Dede Smith, a former official overseeing the Ragged Mountain Natural Area, blasted the dam-pipeline for allegedly exploding far beyond its original $143 million estimate.
"We're talking about 200 million dollars," said Smith."There are people in jail who have defrauded the public out of less money."
Smith also noted that the 22 percent drop in local water consumption over the past decade has quashed the need for a new reservoir.
"The demand analysis is now wrong," said Smith. "It might have been reasonable 10 years ago, but history has shown us that times have changed."
Asked at the meeting whether the suspect dredging numbers and now-disproved consumption projections–- both supplied in the application for a federal dam permit–- might imperil that permit, Authority board chair Mike Gaffney deferred to Frederick, who declined to immediately respond.
The last page of the permit from the Army Corps of Engineers does declare that either "inaccurate" information or "significant new information" can cause Corps to reconsider. Frederick eventually responded by denying there was any inaccurate information in the application or that any significant new information has arisen.
"Like weather," Frederick said in a week-later email, "short term demand is highly variable, and that is why all of the data that are reasonably available at the time are examined, and 50-year trends are most widely used for water supply planning purposes."
Rich Collins, a UVA professor and elected member of the local Soil & Water board, doubts that the Army Corps will reopen the discussion because that would threaten its business partner, the Nature Conservancy. Collins points out that the Conservancy–- which has spent tens of thousands of dollars assisting the Authority on devising the dam/pipeline plan as a national model it hopes to replicate in other communities–- administers millions of dollars that the Corps collects from parties that damage wetlands.
Collins was fascinated in March when a federal judge ruled that an Army Corps-approved dam for King William County was unnecessary because its would-be builder, the City of Newport News, inflated demand projections and downplayed less environmentally damaging alternatives.
Could that happen here? At presstime, the local manager of the Army Corps of Engineers, Vinny Pero, had not responded.
As for the dredging study–- which Rivanna officials have said might cost around $275,000–- it will measure the extent of reservoir's siltation, determine whether stumps are still in place, ascertain the composition of the silt and sand, and determine potential sites for placing the spoils.
"There are a lot of different goals and objectives you can apply to dredging a reservoir," says HDR's Burch. "They usually take somewhere in that six months to a year time frame, depending on how much public input Rivanna [Authority] wants."
A reporter asked for details about prior dredging projects Burch has overseen, and Burch said he'd call back. He did, just an hour or so later.
"I'm sorry, but I've got to shut you down," said Burch. "I've been asked to refer all media inquiries to Tom Frederick."