Pumped up: County water guru says numbers inflated
By issuing a letter in which he blasts the very foundation of the community's controversial 50-year water supply project, Albemarle County's top water manager, Greg Harper, has committed such apostasy that he has found himself getting scrutinized by top local government leaders.
"Who is this County staff person giving this opinion?" asks incredulous Rivanna Water & Sewer Authority board member Gary O'Connell in a late-May email [pdf] to Harper's boss. (Until he changed course last month and began pressing for harder numbers on the total cost of a planned dam/pipeline system, O'Connell, who is also the Charlottesville City manager, was widely considered one of the water plan's biggest backers.)
"Is it true," O'Connell continued in the email to Albemarle County Administrator Bob Tucker, "one of the county staff is challenging the demand numbers?"
Indeed it is true.
The long-touted claim by the Pennsylvania-based engineering firm plotting Charlottesville water strategy is that local demand 50 years from now will be 18.7 million gallons per day, or 18.7 MGD. However, Harper believes a more accurate estimate of community need is closer to just 14.7 MGD. And there's a lot riding on who's right.
If Harper–- who serves as Albemarle's Water Resources Manager–- is correct, then just a few tweaks to the existing system can see the community through any known drought. If Harper's wrong, however, then the 50-year water plan, which has come under intense controversy this year, might begin to enjoy public support beyond the halls of power.
After City Council put a brake on the plan November 3, three County supervisors voiced their support (with one even blasting critics as "frustrated" obstructionists), and an emergency meeting of all four local water boards was to be convened Tuesday, November 25, after the Hook deadline.
Controversy has erupted this year over many aspects of the plan, including its need to clear-cut over 180 acres of mature forest and inundate several streams for a new lake hugging Interstate 64. Also, the official plan relies on a 9.5-mile uphill pipeline, which even backers admit is only a concept. And the cost could top $200 million.
Fortunately, the local water system already has capacity of 16 MGD. However, concern that the existing system is too dependent on the potentially fragile headwaters of the Moorman's River, the mountain waterway feeding the existing Sugar Hollow Reservoir, has led the community to count current capacity at just 12.8 MGD.
By relying mostly on dredging the existing Rivanna Reservoir, a group called the Citizens for a Sustainable Water Supply has submitted an alternative plan to get the capacity up to 17.3 MGD. But it has not been easy getting Albemarle County officials to consider their alternative or to seriously study the Harper memo.
"I've looked at it," said County Administrator and Rivanna Authority board member Bob Tucker, when approached at the close of the July 28 Authority board meeeting.
"This was his opinion," Tucker continued. "Our direction from City Council and the Board of Supervisors is to move forward."
Tucker referred all specific questions on Harper's memo to Tom Frederick, the Authority's director. Frederick, however, declined to address it beyond reiterating his support for the Pennsylvania firm's figures.
"I do not think we have inflated anything," said Frederick. "I think we present our arguments effectively."
Back in May, at a City Council work session, engineer Aaron Keno of the Pennsylvania firm, Gannett Fleming, which Frederick and the Authority had already rewarded with about $5 million in billings, gave that evening's Powerpoint presentation for another $12,000 fee.
Former City Councilor Kevin Lynch, now a member of the all-volunteer Citizens group, however, brought up the fact that local water use has actually shown a declining trend for about a decade. Lynch expressed particular frustration that Keno's claim of 18.7 MGD remains the one that local officials believe– despite the evidence that water use isn't rising. It's falling.
In 1999 and 2000, demand averaged 11.32 MGD. In 2006 and 2007, the last two complete years, demand had fallen to an average of just 10.12 MGD, a drop– despite a growing university and total metro population– of over 10 percent.
“How many years of conservation,” Lynch asked that night, “do we need to see before we can call that a trend?”
That's one of the points Harper hits in his memo in which he lays out the "soft path" of conservation–- in contrast with what he calls a "hard path" of new construction.
"It seems that the focus of the planning process has been on finding and developing yet another water supply through expanding our large, centralized infrastructure," which often concludes, "with new engineering monuments of concrete and steel," Harper notes.
"The Gannett Fleming analysis assumes that we could not–- or would not want to be bothered to–- reduce our water use during the next extreme drought."
But that worries Albemarle Supervisor Sally Thomas, a long-time defender of the official plan, who claims Harper's paper would lead the community into the kind of draconian 2002 drought measures that still cause some folks to shudder.
"Remember cellophane-wrapped sinks in public places?" asks Thomas, noting that some businesses were seriously impacted. And then there was the unsavory mantra: "If it's yellow, let it mellow," or as Thomas puts it, "Don't flush for number one."
Thomas claims that only the threat of "no water by Christmas" led citizens to find ways to significantly curtail water use.
"A couple of your points do not accurately reflect my assumptions," Harper replied to Thomas, though he declined to be interviewed or photographed for the Hook.
"Generally what I'm suggesting," Harper told Thomas, "is a base reduction of 15 percent in per capita use over 50 years through passive and active water conservation and, during droughts, a further reduction down to normal, winter-time levels."
Harper's memo suggests that citizens–- who, with some bold governmental prodding, chopped their demand 40 percent from 12.23 to 7.28 MGD during fall 2002–- can undertake less draconian measures such as pulling back on drought-time yard-watering to avoid buying a new reservoir.
It turns out that there is already a proving ground for water conservation: UVA. With a giant voter-approved bond issue and a growth-oriented board, the University of Virginia has dotted the town with new buildings over the past decade. So it might seem like UVA water use has risen.
Yet despite an uptick in its 2007 vs. 2006 water use and its growth in students, hospital patients, and footprint, the university's total water usage remains significantly lower– 33 percent less in 2007 than it was in 1997.
If UVA's sizeable water conservation efforts have reached a plateau, City Councilor David Brown would seem to believe it. In an email discovered in a recent Freedom of Information Act request, this dam plan backer theorizes that the community may have already picked the "low-hanging fruit."
But Roger Voisinet disagrees. As a real estate agent, Voisinet peeks inside hundreds of houses every year, and he claims that most have not been equipped to save water.
"Most of the newer homes have low-flow shower heads and certainly water-saving toilets," says Voisinet, "but I am guessing only five to fifteen percent of existing homes may have done this."
Currently, both local water sellers, the City of Charlottesville and the Albemarle County Service Authority, offer customers a rebate of $100 for each low-flow toilet installed in an existing dwelling. And Voisinet would like to see that program ramped up and to start hearing officials talking more about conservation than putting money into new storage facilities. He's aghast that recent retreats in usage have punished customers with year-after-year double-digit rate increases.