GREEN- Nature ploy: Is Conservancy impeding dredge options?

Might this ostensibly green group be standing in the way of the most environmentally friendly option for our water supply?

Charlottesville-Albemarle Airport officials– including one of the key fundraisers working for an environmental group once known for free-market solutions– appear eager to downplay any role the Airport might play in dredging that could save the silt-choked Rivanna Reservoir even as entrepreneurs point to successful dredge-built runways in other cities.

Airport Commission member Gregory Edwards paid a personal visit to Airport director Barbara Hutchinson in late February to talk about dredging after a citizen suggested that dredging could save millions of dollars for water customers as well as the Airport, according to documents obtained by the Hook in a Freedom of Information request.

In a February 21 email to Airport board member and dredging opponent Gary O'Connell, Hutchinson noted that Edwards had paid her a personal visit to explain that it was "not appropriate to include the Airport in any water resource conversations, including conversations regarding dredging the reservoir."

Citizen Joe Mooney calls this conversation "surprising" considering that besides serving on the Airport Commission, Edwards is a fundraiser with the Nature Conservancy, an organization supposedly dedicated to thoughtful solutions to environmental problems. In Charlottesville, the Conservancy now finds itself in a role it once shunned: lobbyist.

Founded in 1951, the Conservancy shot to fame during the 1970s for its philanthropic approach to saving the environment. Rejecting traditional eco-approaches of bully pulpit (Sierra Club) or colorful demonstration (Greenpeace), the multi-billion-dollar-endowed Conservancy focused instead on simply paying for environmental salvation: purchasing easements on threatened properties and sometimes buying the properties outright.

But, as revealed by a series of investigative articles in the Washington Post five years ago, the Conservancy's free-market approach could veer toward free-wheeling, particularly when it made below-market land sales to donors and developers. Today, a chastened Conservancy bills itself as a "science-based" organization.

Such scientific interest has been apparent locally by the Conservancy serving as architect of a controversial $143 million water plan. Supporters point to its protection of historic stream flows in two rivers, but critics note the plan requires clear-cutting about 54,000 trees to create a new reservoir under I-64 as well as building an electricity-dependent pipeline and leaving the urban community's two existing reservoirs to silt up.

In a telephone interview, Edwards denies that he was trying to dissuade Hutchinson from using Rivanna sediment. He says was simply trying to tell Hutchinson that any dredging/Airport connection is "a premature question."

In January, the Airport publicly revealed an interest in expanding its main runway, a $50 million operation where much of the money might be expended to truck in fill. Dredging contractors say that airports routinely use dredged fill for new runways (New York's JFK is reportedly all fill), and Mooney has twice appeared before Charlottesville City Council to urge an investigation of pumping sediment from the Rivanna Reservoir two miles to the Airport, conceivably saving each entitity tens of millions of dollars.

Already, the Airport has missed such an opportunity when it trucked in nearly half a million cubic yards of fill for a 2004-2005 expansion. Edwards, however, contends that it's too early to formally explore such options for the next Airport expansion, which hasn't yet been approved by the Federal Aviation Administration.

"You have to wait for the Airport plan to trudge along," says Edwards, "and see if there's a tie-in point."