Water panic: in giant confab, officials agree to study pipeline
Rivanna Water & Sewer Authority chair Mike Gaffney opened an assemblage of four local governing bodies November 25, but it was Charlottesville Mayor Dave Norris who appeared to be steering the ship. Ever since Gaffney dodged a key pipeline issue and the City responded by unanimously demanding new data before it would agree to move forward on a controversial 50-year water plan, some pro-plan officials have been in a panic.
John Martin, for instance, considered at least part of the discussion "very frustrating." A member of the Albemarle County Service Authority, Martin slammed the motives of plan detractors and challenged the Mayor to provide "factual basis" for demanding new information.
"I think we need to address the question whether government must be paralyzed just because someone doesn't like the outcome," said Martin, who was recently placed on a task force to study dredging the Rivanna Reservoir, and yet declared, at an early-September meeting of that body, that dredging to augment the local water supply is "off the table."
And at Tuesday's multi-board meeting, Martin indicated that he hasn't budged. The task force, he said, may recommend that dredging should wait a decade–- and even then might be undertaken merely to satisfy the UVA rowing team.
The plan has kept the community roiled in debate this year as details have emerged. It is now confirmed that it would clear-cut over 180 acres of forest, leave the two existing reservoirs to dwindle from siltation, would place a new reservoir around Interstate 64, and would fail to significantly increase drought-time water supply without an uphill pipeline that critics fear will experience a cost explosion like the one that struck the dam, whose price recently geysered to $90.1-107.4 million, a near tripling of the oft-repeated estimate of $37 million.
"In fairness," Rivanna chair Gaffney told the 20 or so officials and approximately 100 spectators assembled inside the CitySpace, "very little has been written about a separate opinion by a second firm, Schnabel Engineering."
Indeed, by quarrying gravel on the site of Ragged Mountain Natural Area, avoiding a construction-time safety measure called "coffer dams," and using grout instead of deeper foundations to deal with fractured bedrock, Schnabel hopes to save at least $13.5 million. But even Schnabel leaves the dam more than double its original estimate and doesn't address the mysteries of the uphill pipeline.
Currently, the pipeline is just a few pages of broad concepts, and already certain assumptions have raised eyebrows, such as electrical costs rising just 25 percent over 50 years, somehow removing sediments without the usual treatment chemicals–- and the kicker–- convincing all the property owners along its 9.5-mile route to give up parts of their yard for just $249,000, in total. (Consultants had originally hoped to gain free pipeline easements by piggy-backing most of the route along the planned Route 29 Western Bypass, a moribund and oft-reviled proposed roadway.)
"There's no point in having a dam if you can't fill it with water," noted City Councilor Satyendra Huja.
"Big pipes are laid in cities all the time," responded ardent water plan backer Sally Thomas, a member of the Albemarle County Board of Supervisors and chair of the dredging task force. Calling the official plan the "most environmentally friendly" and a "long-range bargain," Thomas contended that because it would be pipeline-fed, the planned reservoir will last "almost forever."
The Mayor, however, stuck to his guns. He blasted the pipeline for being "premised" on construction of the Bypass. And, taking a theme from a blistering memo by the County's top water manager, Norris ripped current water conservation goals as "woefully inadequate." And Norris wasn't finished.
Perhaps emboldened by six pro-dredging neighborhoods, 481 petition signatures, three conservation organizations, and a wildly successful business person who branded the plan Charlottesville's own "bridge to nowhere," Norris went on. He slammed the Rivanna Authority's prior dredging estimates–- which put the cost as high as $223 million–- as "dramatically over-inflated."
And unlike Thomas and Martin, who have attempted to steer the dredging task force away from water supply dredging, Norris–- whose government actually owns the Rivanna Reservoir as well as the land targeted for the new one–- informed his county counterparts that valid reasons may exist for all the criticism. "People," explained Norris, without naming names, "aren't looking at alternatives."
Two months ago, a business lawyer who teaches at UVA's McIntire School of Commerce sent the mayor a letter reminding him that the Rivanna Authority has a contractual obligation to "maintain all dams and water production facilities at the reservoirs" and that the City can take back its reservoirs in the year 2012. Such unilateral rights weren't voiced at the four-board meeting, but they seemed to hover over the proceedings in Norris' bolder-than-usual attitude.
"You don't want to hold up the 50-year water plan," said an astonished-sounding County Supervisor David Slutzky.
"It would be irresponsible," added Martin, "to plan a water supply on assumptions that the public will conserve. If you're going to err, you're going to err on over-supply."
But in his push for new demand numbers, Mayor Norris wouldn't be deterred. "Conservation," he said, "is the cheapest, easiest, and best way to extend our water supply."
Such talk seemed to worry even pipeline-skeptical County Supervisor Dennis Rooker, who asked Rivanna director Tom Frederick to chime in.
"You've asked a very important question," said Frederick, "one that gets into the realm of legal advice."
Frederick said that state and federal regulators, upon discovering that conservation might lower the official 2055 demand figure of 18.7 million gallons per day–- double today's usage–- could revoke permits for the existing plan.
"There is a possibility," said Frederick, "that you might have to start all over again."
At the end of the two-and-a-half-hour meeting, the four bodies pushed the responsibility for conservation back onto the water sellers, the City of Charlottesville and the Albemarle County Service Authority. (It was noted at the meeting that both sellers currently lose about 15 percent of their treated water to pipe leaks, but it was also noted that both sellers offers customers $100 rebates to install low-flow toilets.)
The four bodies also voiced their support of a dredging study, affirmed the creation of a three-engineer panel to assess the two cost estimates on the dam, and agreed to spend up to $25,000 for a new study on the feasibility of the proposed pipeline.
Left apparently unchanged amid all this was the City's November 3 demand that Rivanna study ways to trim demand and then recalculate the 50-year demand projections.
–last updated 12:31pm, December 1