NEWS- Revealing docs: Dredging foes run up the tab
Opponents of a controversial water plan have uncovered documents showing that it might double water bills– which already nearly doubled after the 2002 drought– and that the engineering firm guiding the local waterworks has been trying to avoid dredging the Rivanna Reservoir since 2003, even when the projected dredging cost was just a fraction of the current estimate.
"I'm incensed," says former City Councilor Kevin Lynch, "because this is exactly what I've been seeking for the past three or four years."
"No one has a perfect crystal ball," writes Rivanna Water and Sewer Authority director Tom Frederick in an April 2006 memo in which he forecasts six consecutive years of 10 percent water increases followed by two years of eight percent increases. That would jack a $50 monthly bill to $103. And, as Frederick concedes in the same memo, it doesn't include any provision for other capital expenditures– even though the vast majority of the capital plan involves hard-to-avoid items such as upgrading sewer lines and water treatment plants.
"We've been looking at this a long time," Authority board member Gary O'Connell said on March 24. "Do I hear a motion for approval? The motion carries." In the absence of chairman Mike Gaffney, City Manager O'Connell was chairing the meeting to discuss the Authority's five-year capital spending plan.
That quick vote signaled that the Rivanna board has no interest in revisiting dredging: $43 million of the five-year capital plan's total $150 million price tag is devoted to designing and building a new dam in the Ragged Mountain Natural Area. Eventually, as part of the controversial plan, a $55 million-$60 million pipeline will need to be built to supply water for the new dam, which doesn't have a large enough watershed to fill itself.
It turns out that the dam idea dates back to a December 2003 memo from Pennsylvania-based engineering giant Gannett Fleming, in which the company urges the Rivanna Water and Sewer Authority to abandon its long-held dream of dredging the Reservoir and to look instead at creating new water storage at Ragged Mountain.
The public wasn't told of the Ragged Mountain option until February 2005, and it eventually became the officially accepted option, one that has been hotly debated in recent weeks. Concerned citizens and professional dredgers have come forward to denounce the concept of a new reservoir and to question reliance on a single engineering firm that has parlayed what was originally a $798,000 contract into over $2.5 million in past billings and $2.8 million in future billings– with no end in sight.
Before his sudden and never-explained departure in June 2003, former Rivanna Authority director Larry Tropea had crafted a long-term water supply plan that consisted of three main components: raising the dam height on the Rivanna Reservoir, dredging it, and reactivating an old pumping station on the Mechums River. Total estimated cost: $13.2 million.
It was to implement that plan that the Authority advertised for proposals in May 2003. Responders included Camp Dresser & McKee, which offered to do the job for $1.02 million; that Cincinnati-based firm was one of four whose bids were ultimately rejected.
But one firm was no stranger to local officials. Just two months earlier, dam experts Gannett Fleming had issued a 74-page prescription for repairing the existing dams at Ragged Mountain.
"Gannett Fleming is intimately involved with the Rivanna Water and Sewer Authority supply issues through our current work," says the cover letter on the Harrisburg-based firm's proposal. Several dividers within a thick binder extolling the firm's work on dams and other water facilities carry a bold notation that some might now consider ironic: "Doing More with What You Have."
The contract was finalized that October, with Gannett Fleming authorized to earn $798,000 [PDF] to carry out Tropea's plan [RTF]. But, as history has demonstrated, Gannett Fleming soon moved far beyond the original mission of fixing the community's water woes. Within the first few months of arrival, the company began questioning the underlying data [PDF].
Internal documents show that Gannett Fleming disagreed [PDF] that raising the dam would create sufficient capacity. Moreover, the company blasted dredging as too expensive even though the cost of the operation was then estimated at just $41.7 million.
"It looks as though dredging will have minimal benefit at huge cost," O'Connell wrote in an early 2004 report to City Council.
Some folks were not so quickly dissuaded. Among them was Bryan Elliott, then director of the Charlottesville Airport, who inquired [PDF] whether dredging might provide free or low-cost fill for a runway extension. More recently, both O'Connell and the current Airport director have offered reasons why such cooperation may be impractical.
At the time, the Authority, having lost Tropea before the contract was awarded, was operating under an interim director, and continued to do so until well into 2004 when Frederick was hired. It was during the interim that Gannett Fleming made some of its boldest moves.
According to a January 20, 2004 memo uncovered by the water plan's critics, the company had rewritten its "Scope of Services" [PDF] to investigate many of the underlying figures including the capacity of the local water system.
Gone were concepts that Tropea had championed such as "days of supply." [powerpoint] In its place, Gannett Fleming wanted to develop a "safe yield" analysis using computer-modeling and to obtain the assistance of the non-profit Nature Conservancy, which was eager to establish a national model for minimum flows for the Moorman's and Rivanna Rivers.
Gannett Fleming went on to win a series of contract amendments that ballooned its water plan compensation to about $2.5 million by early 2008. (In addition, the company won a $3.1 million contract last year to design a new 112-foot-tall Ragged Mountain reservoir.)
Along the way, many studies have been completed, among them one by Gannett Fleming in December 2004 alleging that dredging the reservoir would cost up to $145 million. By March of this year, Gannett Fleming's estimate for dredging the reservoir had swollen to $225 million.
As previously reported, such estimates have not won favor in the dredging world, and City Council has agreed to hold a hearing May 6 to discuss the community water plan.
Now, residents and users of the Rivanna Reservoir understand that when Authority documents say that the Reservoir will lose 88 percent of its original capacity by the year 2055, the days of its existence as a major lake could be coming to an end.
"It just gets shallower and shallower," says Kevin Sauer, the UVA women's crew coach who has been rowing on the Rivanna Reservoir for 20 years. "We can still get up to the Reas Ford Road bridge, but you have to be very careful."
Sauer, who has taken teams to NCAA championship competition, now says he hopes that the donated boathouse won't become a relic on a lost lake.
"I respect the plan that's out there and all the work that went into it," he says. "But if there's a better way, let's keep our eyes open."