Down 22%: Water thrift backfires on RWSA

news-toiletrebateBoth City and County pay citizens $100 each to replace their toilets with new low-flow models.
PHOTO BY HAWES SPENCER

Local households appear locked in a decade-long pattern of lower water consumption that, while paradoxically driving up their bills, has plunged the waterworks into deficit spending, according to a new financial report released Friday, July 24.

The new numbers show the Rivanna Water and Sewer Authority finishing its fiscal year with a $606,000 deficit primarily because urban water sales fell about four percent below projections. In his financial report, Authority director Frederick concedes the deficit but makes no statement about how the Authority or its customers will cover it. However, in an emailed response to a reporter's question, Frederick notes that the Authority maintains various reserves including a "rate stabilization fund" designed for just such purposes.

"RWSA has adequate reserves to cover the deficit," Frederick says in the email.

In recent weeks, as its insistence on building a potentially superfluous dam has come under increased scrutiny, the Authority has been questioned over its decision to spend over $1,600 on food and alcohol at a dinner for dam engineers and $515 an hour for a lawyer.

The past decade has seen water prices more than double, something some critics have begun seeing as a "Catch-22." As the Authority charges more, it sells less; as it sells less, it institutes new rounds of price increases. Most recently, the County enacted a new pricing plan to reward thrift and punish water gluttony by spiking prices after every 3,000 gallons of monthly usage.

Long before the new pricing scheme, which took effect July 1, one County expert began asserting that citizens have simply learned to conserve. The Authority, however, has ascribed falling demand to a variety– and some seemingly contradictory– explanations including heavy drought and heavy rain. Most recently, the economic downturn has become the explanation du jour.

Whatever the cause, new data obtained in a pair of Hook Freedom of Information requests finds that from 1999 to 2009, total urban water consumption dropped from 4.03 billion gallons annually to 3.2 billion gallons, a long-term decline of 22 percent.

Former City Councilor Kevin Lynch seems to have already surmised this, as he blistered the Authority last month by noting that a large consumption drop was the "equivalent" of building a new dam.

And the Authority still badly wants a new dam made not out of conservation but of concrete.

From 2005 to 2007, the Authority allowed the Pennsylvania-based engineering firm of Gannett Fleming to dismiss the notion of simply dredging the existing Rivanna Reservoir as costing as much as $223 million. As that figure became publicized in early 2008, it provoked guffaws as being larger than a concurrent dredging of the Panama Canal and about 10 times what private industry proposed for doing the local job.

Not everyone, however, is laughing as the Authority attempts to wrest 180 acres of mature forest from Charlottesville citizens in the Ragged Mountain Natural Area. There, the Authority wants to build roads, fell trees, and quarry rock to erect a dam which would flood the sides of Interstate 64 and which wouldn't fill without a 9.5-mile pipeline, a question-laden project that could potentially push the Authority's planned water supply overhaul over $200 million, causing water bills to crank higher.

As it turns out, water consumption has fallen despite a significant rise in population. According to the Census Bureau, the Charlottesville-Albemarle population grew nine percent in just the eight years from 2000 to 2008, from 124,285 to 135,562. Supporters of the new dam/pipeline point out that total population matters less than the location of increased population, an elusive figure. However,  Hook figures compiled from the Freedom of Information requests show a veritable plummet in the amount of water used per customer connection.

In 1999, the 25,596 water customers in the urban system used an average of over 157,000 gallons annually. By the end of 2009, customer connections had increased 20 percent to 30,782. And yet average use had fallen to about 104,000 gallons, a 34 percent drop in per-connection consumption.

One big behind-the-scenes debate has dam supporters pointing to UVA, where water use recently rose after a more than decade-long drop, claiming that most practical conservation measures have already been implemented, that the so-called "low-hanging fruit" has already been picked. Others, however, such as alternative energy-favoring realtor Roger Voisinet, claim that at least 85 percent of older houses still don't have such simple devices as low-flow toilets.

Such diverse parties as the Sierra Club, business mogul William Crutchfield, five neighborhood associations, plus all current and several former City Councilors, have urged the Authority to dredge the community's main reservoir before building a new one. Dam supporters, by contrast, point out that a new reservoir/pipeline would not only guarantee enough water supply for at least 70 years into the future but would also create greater water flows in the Moormans River.

Whether today's water-conscious citizens want to pay for such future treats is what the battle is all about.

–last updated 6:03pm July 28 to correct one percentage.

23 comments

Bottom Line..... yet another price increase right around the corner, because local residents have voluntarily tried to conserve water.

Won't be long before people's water bills will be $150 a month. Mine is already at $80 a month for 6,000 gallons.

Frederick claims he has adequate reserves to cover the deficit.

You bet he does. 25% of your water bill goes into a slush fund that started when they doubled your rates in 2002, and now they're sitting on 30 million with not one additional drop of water to show for it. Lots of money to spend on dinners, lawyers, and a quixotic quest to build a new dam !

Why would they dip into the "adequate reserves" to cover the deficit? It's much easier just to raise the rates another 5% to 10%. And there's not a thing the consumer can do about rate increases except complain.

Does anyone expect Frederick to do anything other than grow his empire and add a new dam to his resume ? I heard recently the Board gave him a bonus for his stellar performance. What the heck, it's just the ratepayers money.

Seems like 600K is the magic number.

Rivanna Water and Sewer Authority finishing its fiscal year with a $606,000 deficit and Comer blamed: Glenmore group missing $666K .

Has anybody looked into the possibility that members of the water authority may have a financial interest in developing the areas around the proposed dam? It just otherwise does not make sense that they are so adamant about building the dam and not interested at all in dredging. Maybe it's an ego thing. Being able to claim that they built that damn thing.

Land, concrete, gravel, steel. There are lots of potential money making opportunities here for the members.

I bet the state's water authorities had a lot to do with making the use of rainwater illegal. They would have no way to collect money for it. Anyway, I didn't know it was illegal and I don't care that it is. I do have a cistern and I will be soon be diverting rain water to it help fill it. I can collect thousands of gallons of water at no charge, to be used as irrigation. Not sure if i would use it as drinking water. Not without at least purifying it first.

There is always 'low hanging' fruit to be had when it comes to water efficiency. Water rates will go up, regardless if water efficiency programs are in place or not. Fact is, most all water utilities need more money to comply with state and Federal drinking water standards, maintain treatment processes, delivery systems, metering...the list goes on. Water efficiency is just one of the many balls that a utility director must juggle.

New infrastructure like dams, etc make people feel more 'secure' about thier water supply. However, well planned water efficiency programs can ensure long term supply and at a lower cost. Simply putu, if a million gallons of water saved costs less than a million gallons of new supply, efficiency programs is the way to go. A simple cost/benefit analysis should answer any questions in that decision making process.

Where I used to live, a firm called Niagara Conservation worked with the utility to deliver new, high efficiency toilet directly to customers homes. It was quite effective and the utility was able to delay costly new capitol infrstructure for many years. The utility ended up saving tons of money on energy costs too - remember, it takes energy to move water.

I vote for more efficiency programs rather than cut down trees and creating a dam.

Care to comment on anything in this article directly to the Rivanna Water and Sewer Authority Board. Meeting tomorrow- public comment promptly at 2pm.

Tomorrow's RWSA Board meeting will be held in the lower level Board Room of the ACSA on 168 Spotnap Road due to construction at Rivanna

Google Albemarle Service Authority for directions to office on Pantops

If RWSA were a private company, it would be looking for a new director. Maybe the owners - us - should be demanding a change.

I would like to clarify one of the blogs that mentioned that Mr. Frederick received a bonus this year. In response to a question Lonnie Wood, who is in charge of finances at RWSA wrote the following:
"Mr. Frederick received an annual salary of $128,740 as compensation for the position of Executive Director for both the Rivanna Water and Sewer Authority and the Rivanna Solid Waste Authority for FY2009 (7/1/08-6/30/09). He did not receive any salary increases or bonuses during FY2009 and none are expected or have been approved for this fiscal year which began 7/1/09."

RWSA is an AUTHORITY and you have no controll over its budget. Council and BoS doesn't either. That's how they can wine and dine, pay a lawyer $475 - $515/hour to sit in on meetings, and pay its employees and consultants whatever it wants to.
This plan is not Frederick's plan as much as it is The Nature Conservancy's former local employee's (Ridge Schuyler's) plan. That's right, Steve, the same multi-billion dollar global business that bought about 215 acres in Martha's Vineyard and sold 105 acres for the development of MacMansions and now wants control of about 900 acres in the current natural area and 300 acres it says it can bring to the table provided by an as-to-be-named "donor." How a multi-billion dollar with all of its lawyers can claim that it was duped in the Martha's Vineyard deal isays to me it can't be trusted by preservationists and conservationists. And I'm wondering what has been the role of the Piedmont Environmental Council. Jeff Werner has been so quiet recently.
@Rate Payer, the reason that the left and right are so atypical in philosoph on this matter is because they don't want to be bothered with it. They have enough on their plates. Elected RWSA board, anyone?

I hope we can stop Frederick and board from this plan. similar to the parkway, the process is so lumbering and insulated from the public that by the time we can build something it does not match the community needs. how they can justify this and a parkway with no public transportation/auto reduction elements is patently absurd.

My guess is the original board ( Gaffney, Fern, Tucker, Mueller, and O'Connell) are either in bed with the Wendell Woods of the community or scared of them. Better to let the ratepayers suffer than have to pay for growth themselves.

Just curious that the left and right leaning Supervisors are falling for this. On the left you'd expect them to care about maintaining the resources we have, and on the right you'd expect them to scream about wasteful spending.

Maybe they're all afraid of Wendell !

I agree Steve . Why are they so resistant to dredging. They sure are dug in --someone suggested to me, rather than a land deal, it's all about concrete--takes a lot of that to build a dam.

I would have little trouble predicting the usage rates will drop with the new pricing models. Heavy users will invest in water saving tech and use even less water. Making big users drop their comsumption is going to have a large impact. That's what I learned in econ class

Bingo diagoliv! It's not just pricing that will drive the investment. Today, Virginia law discourages real innovation by prohibiting most uses of rainwater. But that is changing and soon. Once it is "legal" to use cisterns to store and use rainwater we will see big water declines mostly from those large water users. The Hook published a great article on this. Check it out.
http://www.readthehook.com/blog/index.php/2009/07/14/rainwater-harvestin...

"Greater flows in the Moorman's River" are certainly a benefit of Rivanna's dam/pipeline scheme, but in this letter written by Dan Bieker, president of the Ivy Creek Foundation when Ragged Mt. Natural Area was founded, a teacher of Natural History and Orinthology at Piedmont Va.Community College, and a highly respected environmentalist, he writes that there is more than one way to achieve this goal.

this is a part of a letter by Dan published in the Daily Progress:

Improved stream flows, especially for the Moormans River, are a major force behind the water plan, and rightfully so. Courageous citizens have fought for years to improve river flow. The water issue comes down to storage capacity; but any scenario, not just the current plan, that increases capacity can increase stream flows; it's simple physics. The health and volume of the Moormans does not depend solely on the proposed plan.

Listening to officials espouse the benefits of the plan, one might think it's a heaven-sent answer. A national model? Hardly. The truth is we could improve stream flows all over the country by using massive amounts of horsepower to pump water uphill to storage reservoirs, at $100's of millions per project, but is that an answer? Even if this project IS the lesser of evils, one might think twice before trumpeting that as a national model. Not to mention the tremendous (and glossed over) destruction that will take place at Ragged Mountain Natural Area - not only loss of trees, but the fragmentation of contiguous forest by miles of roads to facilitate improvements to the interstate."

Neither the State nor the Federal gvoernment has given RWSA a permit to run water under I-64, and I can't see why either would without a large escrow account in case of damage because of construction or maintenance costs. And I don't mean $5M, either.

RWSA is claiming the dam will cost less by hiding the millions needed to shore up I-64, which must be done as you have pointed out Cville Eye. Their claim that the expert dam panel showed substantial ways to save money over the Gannett Fleming $90 million dollar dam estimate is dependent on making the embankment project, to protect the reservoir from a toxic spill, a separate project. The article written by the Hook in Nov of 2008 could be re-printed today because Rivanna is trying once again to mislead the public.

the Hook article:

"What they wished were a $37 million dam might, the press release said, cost around $70 million. But the financial news is worseââ?¬â?? at least $20 million worse.

As revealed by the Hook September 22, the day of the press conference, millions in costs to shore up Interstate 64 from reservoir waters were missing from the new tally�"

http://www.readthehook.com/blog/index.php/2008/11/10/hide-and-leak-dam-c...

As in the past, the County is trying to use the South Fork Rivanna Reservoir as a reason not to build the Western By-Pass, but seems unconcerned about running the new Ragged Mt. Reservoir under truck laden I-64 .

"Other Commissioners told her that the debate is long over for the Western Bypass. Chairman Strucko said the bypass would destroy neighborhoods, would pass to close to County schools, would touch the South Fork Rivanna Reservoir, and would be ineffective.

http://cvilletomorrow.typepad.com/charlottesville_tomorrow_/2009/07/july...

Is Mike Gaffney brother of Jeff Gaffney?