Water surprise: Reservoir halted after price doubles
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.
"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.
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