Use dwindles: But water debt may more than triple

More households are hooked into the urban water system, but use continues to fall.
RWSA NUMBERS/HOOK GRAPHIC

In the next five years, the debt load on the urban water system would more than triple, according to the recently submitted budget from the local waterworks. And that's got water-watchers concerned that area bills will jump.

"Some official needs to step up to the plate and explain that rates are going through the roof," says former Charlottesville Planning Commissioner Betty Mooney.

Mooney expresses particular outrage that just a year after the local waterworks chair predicted annual rate increases of just 1.2 to 2.5 percent, the rates unveiled last week show a single-year spike over ten percent. (And that's just the wholesale rate; what the two major municipalities will charge their customers will not be revealed for another month or so.)

It was a highly publicized May 6 City Council meeting on the topic of dredging–- one in which many leaders attempted to downplay the value of dredging and downplay the costs of a proposed reservoir/pipeline system. There, waterworks chair Mike Gaffney gave his five-year forecast of the wholesale rates: "The city rates increase 1.2 percent a year, and the county rates are 2.5 percent a year." (Gaffney's prediction was documented by Charlottesville Tomorrow.)

"No human has a perfect crystal ball," explains Gaffney. "Multi-year rate forecasting is based upon the best information available at the time."

Contrary to those who claim a fundamental downward trend in water use, Gaffney sees merely "short-term reductions in consumption" due to "a dry weather cycle and the recession in our current economy."

Mooney, however, isn't mollified. And she has been complaining that the waterworks is trying to build an unnecessary dam/pipeline system and points out that most of the costs of that system–- over $100 million–- aren't even included in the waterworks' latest five-year capital improvement plan or its planned debt wave.

Indeed, the budget plans a state-mandated nutrient removal sewer system upgrade, estimated at $52 million, as well as a massive rerouting and enlargement of a cross-town waste pipe known as the Meadowcreek Interceptor and related projects for $37 million.

Mooney, noting that debt service already accounts for about half the annual spending and who obtained a 2006 email in which the waterworks director forecasts much steeper rate increases, simply thinks that the Rivanna Water & Sewer Authority is in over its head. More recently, a 2007 Authority memo talks of a "straw position" of five percent annual increases.

"It's like the financial collapse," says Mooney. "They're using all these financial instruments that they don't really understand."

She contends that the water supply solution has been staring decision-makers in the face: dredging the Rivanna Reservoir. That, she says, will provide most, if not all, the needed water. And the Authority, which stockpiles an annual profit of around $5 million, appears to have the approximately $30 million already in hand to fund such a project without taking on any new debt.

Existing debt on the Authority's urban system is $42.7 million. Under the proposed budget presented to the board February 23, the Authority would incur $105-115 million in new debt. That combined debt load, as much as $3,300 per household, veers close to a quadrupling of debt for a system that appears to be selling less water each year.

Consumers used less water in January and February this year than previously in those months in the 11 years that the Hook has records. Likewise, 2008 finished up as the year with the second lowest use in that same time frame; only the record-breaking rainy year of 2003 saw less water use. All these reductions come despite growth and annual requests to bring new and existing neighborhoods into the urban system.

RWSA officials, such as director Tom Frederick and board member Gary O'Connell respond that it's drought restrictions that are bringing the water use down. O'Connell recently handed a reporter a red graph showing a decade with two drought watches, one drought warning, one set of "phase one" restrictions, and even a set of "phase two" restrictions.

Whatever the reason, increasing prices amid falling use upsets Mooney, who says consumers appear to be getting punished for their own conservation efforts, and the Authority's own documents admit as much. According to the new budget, handed to the board February 23, “Rates must increase due mainly to lower flows."

–last updated 1:10pm, March 3

13 comments

Charlottesville GET READY

These raters do not include the BIG DAM at Ragged Mountain. And they do not include the big new pipeline from SFRR to Ragged Mountain. Be conservative and call that $200 Million. All that money also has to be paid based on the ever decreasing flows. This latest 10%+ is only the tip of the avalanche. If you care about your town make this the TIPING POINT. Charlottesville is becoming unaffordable to the common man.

Why is Charlottesville funding a project for The Nature Conservancy? Why don’t we maintain our existing infrastructure (reservoirs/pipelines) and possibly expand Sugar Hollow if needed? That way we will have the best water at the lowest cost.

Time for the Coalition for Affordable Water ?

Does anyone know the percent of city vs. county rate payers?

I know the city residents all pay sewer and water but what percent of the county folks do ? I was told the majority of Albemarle Service Authority appointees do not pay water/sewer bills and I don't know about the Supervisors but probably some don't or represent citizens on wells . So why would they care what it costs?
It's the city that will take the hit losing their best water, urban park, South Fork Reservoir to siltation and bear the brunt of the cost burden

What city resident would support all this new infrastructure when everyone is using less water and their rates are going up ?

Water rates do not need to go up at all because $5 million of the budget is for the "RESERVE" i.e. the money they are squirreling away. All you have to do is to reduce the amount that is going into the reserve and rates don't have to go up. The reserve now sits at about $28 million. Earnings on the reserve are projected to be much lower this year because interest rates are way down. So lets get creative. I think the rates on our debt are higher than the earnings on the reserve so let's see if we can apply some of the reserve to the debt and the savings could also keep rates from going up. Hey let's get really radical. We already have enough reserve to dredge the reservoir so let's do it and we will have an adequate water supply for decades especially seeing how we are using less water. And let's quit paying millions of dollars to an incompetent consultant that wants to sell us services relating to building a dam.

I think we need to hear the whole story pro and con and not just small snipets. Let's get it all out. AND do we have other options?

It's the same old story of underestimating. I am thoroughly convinced that the people at the helm have no real idea of what they're doing. It seems that RWSA erred in predicting rate increases by a factor of 10. Whew!
Now that Fluvanna and Louise have decided to bring water in to Zion Crossroads, has RWSA actually looked at the implications? I suspect there will be a population shift between Zion Crossroads and Short Pump. Also, will the residents in northern Albemarle be using water from Ragged Mountain or Greene County?

There is excellent coverage of the entire issue with many supporting documents B. Powell done by the Hook at this web-site.
Cvilletommorrow.com also has tapes of all the meetings that were held.

http://www.readthehook.com/blog/index.php/2008/11/01/story-archive-
hook-water-articles/

Citizens for a Sustainable Water Plan has written a white paper of the alternatives at this link. Unfortunately very few people have read it and there has been little discussion of it by the public.

• May 22, 2008 - NEWS- Competing visions: Citizens unveil alternate 50-year plan
2002 flyer - Citzens group: offers $81-125 million counter-proposal [PDF].

Please go to Cvillewater.info and contact us if you have any questions or comments about our alternatives

B. Powell sorry, here is the link to the complete water articles archive

http://www.readthehook.com/blog/index.php/2008/11/01/story-archive-hook-...

It looks like we need to use more water so rates go down or is it use less water so rates go up?

You actually don't have to do either. The city tacked an additional 5,000 gallons of water useage on my December bill... AND MADE ME PAY FOR IT!!!! The bill was normal in the November billing cycle, and went back to normal in January billing cycle.

I'd still like to know where that additional $50 they raped me out of went. And I wasn't the only person in the city that had the same identical unexplained overcharge in December.

Sick, are you saying that your December bill was $100, but it's usually $50? How many people are in the household? I'm trying to get a fix on our water consumption for 6 adults.

Having listened closely to both sides of this debate, I tend to side with Mr. Frederick and the RWSA. It has been pretty obvious for years that rates are going to go up steeply for years. Crumbling infrastructure is not cheap to fix, and it's time for this generation of rate payers to step up and accept some responsibility.

It's going to be expensive, but wouldn't you rather have too much than too little water. Err on the side of too much, or too little? Pretty easy question for this city resident.

The real victory was keeping our water supply withing our watershed, which seems to be lost on most folks in this debate.

"Err on the side of too much, or too little?" Haste makes waste.
"Crumbling infrastructure is not cheap to fix, and it’s time for this generation of rate payers to step up and accept some responsibility." Just as I wouldn't believe a my wife's spring, summer, fall, and winter wardrobes all wore out all at one time, I don't believe all of our water AND sewer infrastructure, some of which is sixty years older than the other, all wore out at the same time. Wasn't it about five years ago that Overrun O'Connell said that all of our gas infrastructure needed replacing?

Oh, and didn't the same Overrun O'Connell tell us that the mortar underpinning of the bricking on the downtown Mall needed replacing? How much was actually replaced, 25 or 50 sf? Don't forget the water fountains!