More spending: Rivanna moves past Gannett Fleming
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."