More spending: Rivanna moves past Gannett Fleming

news-water-rwsaThe outrage that put City Councilor Holly Edwards (left) and County Supervisor Sally Thomas (right) onto the Rivanna board last month didn't stop the planned highway-hugging mega-dam pushed by chair Michael Gaffney (center). PHOTO BY HAWES SPENCER

Three hours before the June 25 vote to replace the embattled engineering firm guiding the local water supply, Kevin Lynch was blasting the leadership of the waterworks. "How much longer," asked Lynch, a former City Councilor, "will Rivanna throw good money after bad?"

The question came the same day that the Daily Progress revealed that the waterworks, the Rivanna Water & Sewer Authority, was paying a lawyer $515 an hour–- sometimes over $20,000 a month–- to review documents.

The Progress also reported that the Authority– which has come under fire for its insistence on building a giant new dam even as area water consumption falls–- spent over $1,600 to wine and dine engineers scrambling to preserve the controversial proposal. (The liquor portion of the event was later reimbursed.)

In February, the Authority, which agreed two years ago to pay Pennsylvania-based Gannett Fleming $3.1 million to design the dam it advised the Authority to build, authorized spending an additional $264,000 to hire three engineers to find ways to build a cheaper dam.

Ironically, one of the three engineers, Paul Rizzo, had questioned the propriety of letting Gannett Fleming, which began guiding the Charlottesville water process in 2003, compete for the design contract in the first place. In April, Rizzo joined two other engineers in issuing an interim report that would save the project by using grout, eliminating "wing walls," and– surprisingly, for a place so ecologically sensitive that pets are banned and humans advised to "hike quietly"– quarrying construction-ready rock right there in the Ragged Mountain Natural Area.

If Gannett Fleming has been on a safety kick in recent months, there could be sound reasons. The firm was faulted for its overhead concrete ceiling panels at Boston's "Big Dig" which caused a fatality in 2006. Last year, the firm declared that fractured bedrock at the dam site would cause the budget to more than double to at least $90 million. A required pipeline that critics believe could cost as much has won the support of the Rivanna board.

Whatever the cost, the project would be borne by local water rate-payers, who have already suffered the ignominy of seeing their bills more than double over the past decade.

In one of the more chilling moves for rate-payers, the entity that actually retails water to Albemarle County homes and businesses recently admitted that it was drawing down over $5 million from equipment reserves to avoid "rate shock" because water consumption– the source of all revenue– has been falling, particularly in the past year or two.

"A lot of companies might like to say, 'Let's just pretend last year didn't happen.' But unfortunately last year did happen," said Lynch, who describes himself as a budget hawk.

While Lynch fears an explosion in water rates because the Rivanna Authority admits that its debt will triple between now and 2016, the Rivanna Authority also heard Thursday from its rate consultant who claimed that rates need climb just 23 percent over the next four years.

Another critic, Dede Smith, a former city school board chair, circulated a flyer at Thursday's meeting suggesting that the Four-Party Agreement, the document that governs local water, demands that the new dam should be the "sole cost" of Albemarle, not Charlottesville, rate-payers.

Smith also pointed out what she sees as a colossal botch by Gannett Fleming (besides, of course, getting canned by an Authority that has long fought charges of conflict of interest and incompetence to keep the company on the job). Smith noted that the company– infamous locally for portraying dredging might be a Panama Canal-sized effort costing up to $223 million– predicted that conservation would trim water use by just five percent. Water use has fallen so far below those projections that Lynch, too, took note.

"We've decreased our water usage about 25 percent," said Lynch. "That's the equivalent of building you a new dam."

The board wasn't buying it. Three hours later, with the meeting already stretching 30 minutes past its planned end time, the members debated for fewer than two minutes before approving the search for a replacement engineering firm. The measure doesn't actually fire Gannett Fleming but simply empowers Rivanna Authority director Tom Frederick to seek new proposals.

Frederick must have had confidence that the board would see things his way. The vote took place at 4:04pm; the press release announcing it was emailed to media three minutes later.

During the meeting, Frederick turned aside concerns about over-building saying that it doesn't bother him if the dam turns out to supply not the planned 50, but as much as 70, years of water supply. "Most people I've talked to," Frederick said, "say that's not a bad thing."

And despite City Council's recent push to get its Rivanna Reservoir dredged before building a dam, city officials on the Rivanna board seem willing to see things Frederick's way.

For instance, City manager Gary O'Connell downplayed the recent drop in water consumption as a mere cyclical move "like the stock market." And the City's new hand-picked Rivanna board member, City Councilor Holly Edwards, despite protesting that she didn't want to "hoard" water, joined what turned out to be a unanimous vote to advance the dam process (with anyone other than Gannett Fleming).

"They weren't responsive," O'Connell said of Gannett Fleming after the meeting. Later reached on his mobile phone, Gannett Fleming's lead engineer on the project, Aaron Keno, declined comment.

Rivanna documents show that an updated dam cost estimate may arrive in spring 2010 with construction to begin in early 2011 and completion by 2013.

Meanwhile, an effort to which Frederick and his board have long been hostile, following a "soft" path toward a dredging-centric water plan, slowly advances. Frederick says a committee to choose a dredging consultant will hold its first meeting on Wednesday July 8 at 3:30pm in County's Fifth Street office building.

Board member Gary Fern asked if Gannett Fleming would continue to earn some money from area water users.

"It would be very limited," replied Frederick. "There may be a tiny bit of coordination there."

Asked after the meeting to respond to Lynch's concerns about throwing good money after bad, Frederick said he wasn't sure exactly what Lynch meant.

"Dams aren't cheap," said Frederick. "You've got to understand what's underground."

This story is a part of the Water plan all wet? special.


Even if you thought Gannett Fleming was pushing their own agenda this should have been public before the meeting so the public could comment apparently that didn't happen and if you read the interim report of the dam experts linked above ( I'd read this if you live anywhere near this dam and want to know what you're in for) they saw nothing wrong with the design work G/F had done to date and said if you go with a new designer it will cost more --but cost since when did this board care about that --so Frederick and his buddies dropped $1,600 on dinner and now G/F is fired and the ITRT are no longer needed while Frederick searches for a "yes man" dam designer --no more talk of risks or problems just get this dam built and sure set up a mine at Ragged Mt., blast the beegeezus out of Ednam Forest and Camp Holiday Trails and anyone else nearby and air quailty with all this dust and grit from a mining operation and 11,000 truck trips ( all in the report)--no problem, Frederick has friends.

" In April, Rizzo joined two other engineers in issuing an interim report that would save the project by using grout, eliminating ââ?¬Å?wing walls,” andââ?¬â?? surprisingly, for a place so ecologically sensitive that pets are banned and humans advised to ââ?¬Å?hike quietly”Ã¢â?¬â?? quarrying construction-ready rock right there in the Ragged Mountain Natural Area.

For instance, City manager Gary O’Connell downplayed the recent drop in water consumption as a mere cyclical move ââ?¬Å?like the stock market.”
Is this man a FOOL or is he praticing for a part in a play?
Also, it is obvious that placing a city councilor on the board of RWSA hasn't added to the board's conversation.
What on earth is the 515-dollar-man doing for the RWSA? How many legal problems are plaguing that agency.

What isn't objective here? With all the quotes I'd say this is the best description of this meeting you'll find anywhere in print.

Mayor Norris's comment in today's Daily Progess to go forward with yet more money for new dam designs for a dam we may not even need, given our current lowered water usage ( 25%) below the Gannett Fleming estimate, is disappointing. We should get the dredging information first and demand new estimates for the amount of water we will need for the state mandated 30-50 year water plan. Why are officials relying on the G/F water demand analysis when they have thrown out their dam design and said their dredging estimates were inflated. Will the public stand for throwing more money at a dam we probably don't need without first looking at the dredging info?

Do you think Norris and the other Councilors understand the implications of this new dam design. My reading of the link to the dam report above indicates they plan to actually start constructing the foundation as they design it and then there's no turning back. I recommend Norris and the others read this report. I thought he said not one tree cut until they get the dredging info --well believe me if they take the advice of the expert panel the next design will mean lots of dead trees and heavy equipment --read for yourself in the link above--" interim report"

Cville Eye, I've never seen any sign that Holly Edwards has what it takes to really do much for the city and nothing to indicate that she was a good choice for council's RWSA representative. The only reason she is on City Council in the first place is because there is no opposition to the local Democratic Party. I'm a Democrat myself, but hate what that's done here. Once she got the party nod as the "diverse" candidate, she was a shoe in.

Julian Taliaferro might actually have been one for that job. It's hard to say whose pocket he is in, so it's impossible to be sure, but he at least has some experience with budgets.

I don't think O'Connell is a fool. I do think he and a few other people behind the scenes have plans for the area that don't mesh with what the local public wants and are willing to ram them through no matter what. A discussion of less than 2 minutes before a major decision makes it pretty clear that the meetings where these matters are really decided aren't open to the public.

Heard that Frederick called the board before the meeting to tell them that Gannett Fleming had been shown the door. So yes galileo, out of the public eye, which is why we need a totally different structure for this board.

With the water plan going down the drain, and the public having no trust in Mr. Frederick, I predict that any politician who supports this will be forever branded to this boondoggle.

this is torture. it is like getting robbed in broad daylight. can we have a referendum on this and kick these scammers out on their a##es?

We absolutely need a better way to proceed. Regrettably that way does not include the board.

Water is key among our precious resources. It's a finite resource and we have no choice but to treat it as such. Mayor Norris has been doing a great job keeping us on track with green initiatives, but there's still much to be done. Unfortunately, the RWSA/RSWA is lagging far behind.

Stewardship is a really important concept. It starts with the individual citizens, each of us making important decisions to conserve water, to recycle/reuse/readapt, to not poison our environment with excessive chemicals. To be mindful that what we do impacts others via run-off, stormwater, etc.

We are currently conserving 25% of our water! That's amazing! If all of us are doing our part individually through conservation, then why the heck aren't the RWSA and RSWA doing their part collectively? If they aren't promoting best practices and fiscal responsibility, then why are these boards still in place?

People like Citizens for a Sustainable Water Plan, Peter van der Linde, and Bill Crutchfield promote the twin concepts of saving money AND resources. That's a win/win for our area. The wasteful days are over. We have to start mitigating our impact on this planet, and we have to start now.

Wow....was that a news article or an editorial? As a reader hoping for objectivity, the tone makes my skin crawl.