Water surprise: Reservoir halted after price doubles

The Citizens for a Sustainable Water Supply, including former City Councilor Kevin Lynch (foreground), crashed the September 22 press briefing.
PHOTO BY HAWES SPENCER

An already controversial water supply plan that would cost area households tens of millions of dollars just got a lot pricier. And Gannett-Fleming, the Pennsylvania-based engineering firm guiding the plan, has been hit with a stop work order after admitting that the centerpiece of its 50-year project will cost more than double the preliminary estimates. The new Ragged Mountain Reservoir won't cost $37.2 million, as the firm had earlier estimated, but instead nearly $100 million.

"I was concerned with the magnitude of the new estimate," said Rivanna Water & Sewer Authority executive director Tom Frederick after a Monday morning press conference at which a range of figures were unveiled: from as little as $82.3 million to a high of $98.7 million.

What's driven the price up so much? Among the big-ticket items are $9.8 million for foundation excavation, $6.9 for mobilization, $15.5 million for roller-compacted concrete, and as much as $18.5 million to build a new embankment for Interstate 64, whose bed the new reservoir would lap.

Wrongly, the press release accompanying the announcement omitted the I-64 embankment, a crucial part of the dam project that is nowhere else accounted for in the 50-year water plan. When a Hook reporter pointed out that the release–- and, subsequently, other local media–- understated the amended project cost as just $70 million, Frederick said he simply took issue with the embankment's estimated cost as published in Gannett-Fleming's report, which the Hook examined.

"What you have in front of you," said Frederick, "is the opinion of Gannett-Fleming; it is not the opinion of the Rivanna Water & Sewer Authority."

After he got the numbers in August, Frederick began scrambling to save the project. He asked Gannett-Fleming to halt design work while he brought in another firm, Schnabel Engineering, for a second opinion.

Ironically, Schnabel's Charlottesville office was in the running for the dam design contract last year. And already, Frederick said, Schnabel discovered ways to reduce the estimate by at least $13.5 million.

That still leaves tens of millions for water buyers to absorb if the reservoir–- which had previously gotten a green-thumbs-down from many environmentally savvy citizens for straddling I-64 and requiring a 180-acre clear-cut of a pristine natural area–- moves forward. It also suggests that what critics derided as needlessly expensive when it was a $143 million plan could top the $200 million mark.

That's not to mention energy prices and skyrocketing interest rates, which have left at least one heavy hitter in the business world not so gung ho on redirecting the flow.

Frederick: "If a penny can save a dollar, then it's obviously wise to spend a little to get some expertise."
PHOTO BY HAWES SPENCER

"Obviously," says Bill Crutchfield, the owner Crutchfield electronics, "they ought to revisit this thing–- wipe the whole slate clean and start from scratch."

That doesn't appear to be happening. Instead, Frederick revealed that he briefed local officials one-on-one last week. And he won permission from his board Monday to assemble a team of three to five experts to pore over the reports from both Gannett-Fleming and Schnabel and make recommendations on how to proceed.

"If a penny can save a dollar, then it's obviously wise to spend a little to get some expertise," said Frederick.

In May, a group called Citizens for a Sustainable Water Plan, submitted three competing water supply proposals which rely primarily on dredging. The Citizens' counter-proposals would supply 86 percent of the water–- an amount they say provides all the community's 50-year water needs–- for a fraction of the cost. And they're worried about another key component of the official plan: a 9.5-mile pipeline needed to fill the new reservoir.

"They underestimate the dam by a factor of two, and the dam is the easy part," says Citizens member and former city councilor Kevin Lynch. "The pipeline has more moving pieces– and missing pieces."

Among the allegedly missing pieces worrying Lynch is the electrical cost of operating what will become, in effect, Albemarle County's third largest river. The Authority assumed electrical rates rising just 25 percent over 50 years. Unfortunately, Dominion Virginia Power has already raised electrical prices 23 percent from in just the past two years.

bill william crutchfield dredging dredge water mark warnerCrutchfield (right): "Wipe the whole slate clean and start from scratch."
FILE PHOTO BY LINDSAY BARNES

While lead project engineer Aaron Keno of Gannett-Fleming did not immediately return a phone message left at his office, recent Freedom of Information filings indicate that his firm has enjoyed a lucrative relationship with the Rivanna board. The company was hired in 2003 to carry out a humbler earlier water plan with a dredging component, but through a series of more than a dozen contract amendments, it was able to rack up billings of over $2 million to craft the dam/reservoir plan. And then it won the $3.1 million dam design contract last year.

Still, some maintain that the plan be maintained.

"What's the big deal about this increase?" asked Rivanna water plan backer John Martin moments after the morning's announcement. Martin, a board member on the Albemarle County Service Authority, the body that actually sells water to urban residents of the County, considers the overall plan still sound–- unlike his view of the over-80-year-old, cast-iron pipeline along the Moorman's River in the Sugar Hollow area.

"The pipeline has to be built," says Martin. "The Sugar Hollow pipeline has to be replaced."

However, recent history suggests the Sugar Hollow pipeline may have a few more years left in it. A Hook Freedom of Information request found that, aside from a catastrophic 2004 wash-out that cost $197,981 to fix, the Sugar Hollow pipeline has required just 12 repairs over the eight years from 2000 through 2007, at an average annual cost of under $2,000.

As the Rivanna board convened later Monday at 2pm, tensions were running high as numerous speakers blasted the five-member body.

"The first thing you should do when you find yourself in a deep hole," said former Rivanna chair and ardent dam opponent Rich Collins, "is stop shoveling."

Kevin Lynch stood up to remind the board that he voted for the water project when he served on City Council in 2006. "I now believe," said a rueful Lynch, "that I was an unwitting participant in a fraud on the taxpayers and ratepayers."

And fellow Citizens member Betty Mooney asked the board to resign. That prompted Rivanna chair Mike Gaffney to break his usual no-comment policy: "I resent the fact that you accuse everyone up here of not doing what they think is in the best interest of the community," he bristled.

Key among the Citizen concerns is that Gannett-Fleming, which has now tacitly admitted to underestimating the dam cost, may have overestimated the cost of a key alternative. The company once claimed it would cost over $223 million to dredge the reservoir. In May, a Charlottesville firm offered to do the whole job for $24 to 29 million.

"They're getting a second opinion now on the dam," said Citizens member Dede Smith. "Why didn't they ever get a second opinion on dredging?"

–last updated 10:06am, September 23

Read more on: sugar hollow pipeline

20 comments

Mr Gaffney says:
: ââ?¬Å?I resent the fact that you accuse everyone up here of not doing what they think is in the best interest of the community.”

Oh, we belive that you think you are doing what is in the best interest of the community alright... that is what so scary about how badly you all have mishandeled this situation.

You all should not resign because of your integrity. you should resign becuase of your incompetence.

Yes, this "do nothing"/unqualified group should certainly be dissolved. Betty Monney is correct in every way here. Gaffney sounds defensive to me. Actually, my perception, he is embarrassed, because Betty is so wise, and makes this group mission and set up look entirely pathetic. Maybe the private sector should create a foundation to overstep government/developer interests in this case. Perhaps initiate a study of dredging absent-governmental interferrence. Betty, you make us proud. You are a winner!

The elephant in the room on all of this is the fact that a small group of citizens did not participate in the public process of the water supply planning efforts of the RWSA and the local governments, for reasons that have not been stated. They are now causing the local communities to spend significant tax dollars to address something they had the chance to look at and comment on through 15 + public meetings over the course of several years.

Just curious where were you all when the public involvement process was going on. Kevin Lynch was on Council and approved it. How many public meetings did he attend?

This group also has the burden of expending significant tax dollars, and postponing correction of a hazardous dam situation.

Elephant, Remember? Some tried to pull a fast one and DIDN'T get away with it! Thanks to folks like Lynch and Mooney, they all got caught with their pants down. Pulling wool over eyes now won't be tolerated. It is the other side who is wasting taypayer monies. It is the inflexable pro dam advocates who want their own way, no matter what. They are looking real stupid at this point!

How can asking and asking for public comment and having numerous opportunities to receive that comment be pulling a fast one? What about those of us who followed the process, gave our input and supported the plan?

Again, where were you people then?

Public involvement is key in these types of decisions, but now this group is getting such high praise for ignoring the process for years and then coming in once permits have been received for a future water supply, and spreading incorrect information regarding, suggesting conspiracy theories ---????

I hope that those who participated in the process as vigilant citizens will be supportive of the local governments and experts as they sort through the latest information.

And I hope that this group will change its tactics from combative to helpful public involvement. Even if you had your eyes shut during the process and entered it completely past the time of decision-making. The public should remember that this group now bears part of the responsibility for these expenditures.

Speaking for myself, only, I attended several of the public meetings organized and directed by RWSA and its public involvment and engineering consultants. I believe that I was the person who first suggested that a guiding policy ought to be "water from within our own wateshed". This policy guide was designed to foreclose what appeared to be a favorite alternative: a James River pipeline with all the huge capital costs, primary and secondary environmental impacts, and an uncertain water quality because of a lack of control over source water.

I participated extensively with a group that was dedicated principally to eliminating the James River option. It was this group that celebrated the announcement that the James River option would be dropped by RWSA. It was also the group that never really "vetted" the scheme that has evolved from its initial form as proposed by the Nature Conservancy, to a two phase, build a big dam, and later fill it with water from SFRR when it can be afforded.

This scheme was concocted largely out of sight in negotiations between the The Nature Conservancy and the RWSA. I was never invited to such meetings where the crucial decisions were made and then "announced and defended" by those who made them.

Public participation is a vital part of the public choice process; in fact, the James River pipeline was dropped because of public mobilization in reaction to the public participation processes run by RWSA. The so-called "50 year plan" is a product of "announce and defend" decisions made largely by RWSA and TNC who then marketed their joint product as "saving the Moorman's" and "meeting future demand". This was marketing, not public participation.

Rich Collins

Elephant in the room, As we recall, the information presented at the meetings was incorrect, full of errors, and based on falsehoods.I'm glad I didn't waste my time attending the meetings you speak of. This was money and time down the drain. People don't trust many of the government officials involved to make wise decisions, especially as they are unwilling to seriously consider the dredging most citizns they represent are requesting.

Obvious Elephant did not go to any of the public hearings during the development of the water plan. Otherwise he/she would know that members of Citizens for a Sustainable Water Plan were at every meeting. I attended all but two of Rivanna's dozen public meetings and spoke at several of them, as well as meeting numerous times with regulators in Charlottesville and Richmond.

This is the sort of "blame the messenger" tactics that we have come to expect from the Bush administration. Anyone who saw this mess coming must somehow be to blame.

Anyone who wants to follow the history of this project should start with a review of Rivanna's first public meeting, when the community was asked to evaluate all alternatives. The agenda and minutes are here: http://www.rivanna.org/community1.htm

At that meeting, dredging was overwhelmingly supported by the community. No other alternative even came close. So what did Rivanna and their consultant do? At their very next meeting, they tried their best to scare the public with horror stories about the noise, smell and cost of dredging. Stories that we now know were wildly exaggerated: http://www.rivanna.org/community2.htm

When Rivanna asked for permission from City Council to seek a permit for the dam expansion, they told us it would be done in phases, with the first phase increasing the dam height by 13 to 15 feet and full height of the dam and pipeline being built much later. Its in the permit application, page 58. http://www.rivanna.org/documents/community/jointpermitapplication.pdf

When I voted to authorize the permit application (we never voted for a plan - read the Council agenda, which is at:http://www.charlottesville.org/Modules/ShowDocument.aspx?documentid=4156) I figured that the initial dam increase would hold us for long enough to figure out why dredging was so expensive. But then the consultants got greedy and started lobbying Rivanna to do the whole 50 year project at once.

When the airport authority started making lots of noise early this year about how it needed 53 million dollars to expand the runway, Joe Mooney realized that the 2 million cubic yards of fill needed by the airport was a near perfect match for the 2 million cubic yards of sediment in the reservoir. He expected that local officials would jump at the chance to save money on both projects, but instead was met with a disinformation campaign (the incompetence of the airport board is a whole other subject - they didnt even know why they needed 53 million dollars until we FOIA'ed them. Then they had to ask their consultant for the justification of the 53M number).

Once we started doing FOIA's all sorts of inconvenient truths started tumbling out - like the fact that two dredging companies had come forward years ago with offers to do the dredging for a tenth of what Rivanna said it would cost. And that Gary O'Connell was telling the Rivanna board to ignore Council's requests to revisit the dredging issue. The rest is fairly recent history.

So those are the facts. But I doubt this matters to Elephant. As we can see with national politics, a disturbingly large number of people just line up behind "their team" no matter what. Or else they follow whoever shouts the loudest. Hopefully people like Elephant are in the minority, or else inflated water costs will be the least of our worries.

Thank you Mr. Lynch - for making my point for me. People "follow whoever shouts the loudest." Keep shouting Mr. Lynch - maybe your "national politics approach" that you refer to will lead to a reasonable reolution to the issues. Or, maybe people in the community will start cooperating with each other and the local governments instead of just trying to stir up the sediment. Good luck.

You mean play nice and support our leaders' positions even though we know that these positions are built on misinformation, ignorance and scare tactics? Ask Colin Powell how that worked out for him.

This is a perfect example of why our country is in the mess it is in. Nobody was able to answer the question as to WHY they needed so much for dredging until these people stood up and DEMANDED it. The Board should have asked that question for them and been able tyo explain it right down to the how many dump truck loads and how much per load etc.

Just like the 3.5 million dollar footbridge across the Rivanna, 5,800 dollars a foot? Whats would it be made of GOLD?

Keep up the good work Kevin.

Elephant, if nobody had "stirred up" anything the taxpayers would be on the way to blowing 200 million bucks. I wonder what your cut would ahve been?

@Elephant, "What about those of us who followed the process, gave our input and supported the plan?" Those of you who gave input obviously gave the wrong input based upon bad numbers. I don't understand why supposedly intelligent people think that good decisions can be made using erroneous information. I suspect Elephant that you only support this plan because your friends support it; you clearly have not given it any thought, and unlike the"loudies" you offer no information at all. Out of curiosity what do you think is the current price tag?
"And he won permission from his board Monday to assemble a team of three to five experts to pore over the reports from both Gannett-Fleming and Schnabel and make recommendations on how to proceed." Is this a sign that Frederick is losing confidence in G-F?

Kevin, I applaud what you are doing here, but you have no excuse for letting Gary O'Connell lead you around by the balls during your tenure on CIty Council. If you couldn't see what sort of person he is, that is your fault. If you did, and didn't stand up to him, then you really let down the citizens who bought that "Democrats for Change" crap.

Can anything be done to convince those government officials who are in control, to now serioulsly consider dredging? As we all know, money talks. Perhaps the reality of a higher cost for building a dam will now make them bend the other way. My guess, those officials who are pushing for the dam are feeling as if they have pie on the face.

Where is the voice of the enviromentist to now defending the plan? Where is Jeff Werner from PEC who was so sure this was the right plan when it was proposed? Did they sell those souls for the promise of restoring a river?

Their silence now is deafening.

D.R. at least Mr. Werner did not agree to serve on the sham of a task force; I have to give him credit for that. What we need to know, too, is that the Nature Conservancy is buying its influence. For example, in addition to providing 340 acres to this project, it is contributing $3M dollars to shore up a creek. That kind of money influences local "leaders" much more than a bunch of money-less citizens. Ridge Street and Fifeville neighborhoods seem to understand this and having stopped playing the game with the city and Southern Development. Maybe PEC has gone off in a different direction. Then, again, maybe not.

If we want to hold someone accountable for this mess it should be the RWSA Board. They claim they run everything by the elected officials. After the November 2007 City Public Hearing 4 out of the 5 Councilors wanted more information about dredging, the RWSA Board e-mails that we received in our FOIA show the Board did nothing to provide this information. The consultants were doing what consultants do, they even brought up studying whether dredging could provide the fill for the airport extension at one point and preliminary studies were done, but the Board put a halt to that. The director of RWSA can only spend money approved by the Board. All evidence suggests that the Board is steering this ship.

The City has recently elected a School Board, perhaps it's time for a community discussion about an elected Water Authority?

Mr. Crutchfield's April letter to the Hook certainly hit the mark"

April 28, 2008

Hawes Spencer
Editor and Publisher
The Hook
100 Second Street, N.W.
Charlottesville, VA 22902

Dear Hawes:
I want to compliment you for writing and The Hook for publishing the April 3rd and April 24th articles on the controversy surrounding the Rivanna Water and Sewer Authority's proposed $143 million water plan. You raised some very important issues which the community needs to understand.

Since the beginning of this debate, I have felt that it is a mistake not to dredge the South Rivanna reservoir. Furthermore, my instincts have been extremely uncomfortable with the concept of enlarging the Ragged Mountain dam and connecting the Ragged Mountain and South Rivanna reservoirs with a 9.5 mile pipeline.

I must preface my remarks by saying that my opinions are based on what I have read in the media and have heard in the community. I have not been privy to any of the technical discussions that officials of the Rivanna Water and Sewer Authority, City of Charlottesville and County of Albemarle have had regarding this subject. Nevertheless, it appears that the decision makers may have failed to ask the types of questions that prudent businesspeople ask when making tough decisions. Here are seven questions that initially come to my mind:

Why did the Rivanna Water and Sewer Authority seek a cost feasibility study for dredging from only one consultant? They hired a consultant, Gannett Fleming, to determine the cost of dredging. Their estimate was $145 million. However, other parties believed the cost would be significantly less. A dredging contractor was willing to do it for $21 million-85% less. Under these circumstances, prudent businesspeople would have commissioned at least one other cost study.

Was it a conflict of interest for Gannett Fleming to provide an estimate for dredging and be asked to design the dam? The Rivanna Water and Sewer Authority asked Gannett Fleming to compete for the design of the Ragged Mountain dam.

Obviously, if dredging was determined to be a good option, there may not have been a need to design a dam. As it turned out, Gannett Fleming was awarded a $3.1 contract for dam design. Prudent businesspeople would have seen this situation as a potential conflict of interest. They would have commissioned a dredging feasibility study from a firm or firms that did not have a vested interest in the Authority's decision not to dredge.

What is the professional qualification of the Nature Conservancy for developing this plan? Apparently, an official with the Nature Conservancy devised it. According to its website, the Nature Conservancy's mission is ââ?¬Å?to preserve the plants, animals and natural communities that represent the diversity of life on Earth by protecting the lands and waters they need to survive.” The Nature Conservancy performs this mission admirably. However, designing municipal water systems is not one of their core competencies. Prudent businesspeople would not have based a decision on a plan developed by an organization that did not have the appropriate expertise and experience.

Did the Nature Conservancy understand the full environmental impact of their plan? It has been reported that their plan calls for clear cutting 54,000 trees over 180 acres. Apparently, the Sierra Club now understands the plan's impact and is withdrawing its endorsement of it. Prudent businesspeople would have understood all aspects of a plan before adopting it.

How much money will local water customers pay and how large is the carbon footprint for the incremental electricity production? Little has been said about the energy needed to pump enormous quantities of water through a 9.5 mile pipeline and then up a small mountain. Prudent businesspeople would factor the financial and environmental costs of a plan that requires the use of so much electrical energy.

Has anyone in the decision-making process looked for creative as opposed to consultant-packaged, generic solutions? The best decisions are often based on creative, non-conventional ideas. For example, there is an abandoned stone quarry within walking distance of the South Rivanna reservoir's dam. It may be possible to buy the quarry and pump sediment into it. The dewatering of the sediment might occur naturally-the sediment would sink to the bottom and the water could be pumped off the top. Another non-conventional idea would be to buy the low-lying, river-front land that includes the old UVa polo field. Because it is in the Rivanna River's flood plain, this land probably has no development potential. Sediment could be pumped the short distance to it for drying and future sale. Prudent businesspeople would explore creative solutions like these.

What are the long-term ramifications of not dredging? Eventually, the reservoir would fill with sediment and become a giant swamp. If that were to happen, the public would demand a complex and costly remediation. Prudent businesspeople would consider long-term issues like this one.

Although the Rivanna Water and Sewer Authority's water plan may be flawed, I do applaud them for attempting to find a long-term solution for our water needs. As I understand it, if the South Rivanna reservoir is completely dredged, our water system would revert back to the capacity that it had 40 years ago. Obviously, we need to find ways to increase our water capacity. This goal is especially important considering the possibility of a reduction in average rainfall as a result of climate change.

As the Authority moves forward with its future planning, I hope that they learn to ask the right questions
Sincerely,
William G. Crutchfield Jr.

An elected water board is what I've been calling for. We've got a water board that claims no responsibliity for anything except spending hundreds of millions of dollars without having a clue as to how much they are going to need to spend. And we're about to have a transit authority with no responsibility to anybody that will be spending millions of dollars every year on whatever projects they want, while we talk about flying Tibetan flags. This university town will become the laughing stock of these United States for giving up its democratic institutions to an oligarchy controlled by a bunch who thinks it only appropriate to discuss the latest fashion and who is the best in sports. Jefferson, Madison and Monroe would wonder what it was all for.

Go Betty, go! Your perception and ideas are right on track. The RWSA board should be elected and ASAP. I hope someone moves forward to get this going and fast.
These people were put there to advocate for all citicens. They have been caught in an act, and they need to GO! If the BOS or City council hangs in their company, they need to be voted out also. Too many local issues are opposed by a majority of citizens. The BOS, Council, and this board ignore commonsense, and instead continue with their own power happy agenda.