Down 22%: Water thrift backfires on RWSA
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.