NEWS- Sierra missed: Club urges dredging, O'Connell soldiers on


Dredging fan and Sierra Club member Joe Mooney hoists a sign April 18 at Fridays After Five.

Less than three weeks ago, its support was touted in publicly funded advertisements endorsing a controversial $143 million water plan. Now it appears the Sierra Club is bailing out.


"We believe that prudence now dictates reconsideration of dredging of the Rivanna Reservoir as a key element in a long-term water supply plan," reads a letter from the Club's Piedmont Group to the water authority and local lawmakers.

The letter [RTF], sent Wednesday, April 16, by conservation chair Thomas Olivier, appears to deliver a blow to public officials who have, despite grassroots pleas to reconsider dredging, maintained an impressive show of steadfastness toward the official plan. The dredging option was shelved three years ago after nine-figure estimates from a single firm with an uncanny knack for making millions studying the local water supply.

"We are aware that in recent weeks, various knowledgeable individuals have asserted that dredging the reservoir could be conducted responsibly for far less than the estimate available at the time of our endorsement of the water plan," says the letter, which also references the "thousands of trees" that would be lost in the current plan to clear-cut over 180 acres in Ragged Mountain Natural Area.

"I am thrilled by the courage and wisdom of the Sierra Club," says Betty Mooney, a leader in the fight against the official water plan.

The Sierra Club's move puts it on the opposite side of the debate from several other environmental groups including the Piedmont Environmental Council, the Nature Conservancy, and Friends of the Moorman's River.

Likewise, Charlottesville City Manager Gary O'Connell, who serves on the board of the Rivanna Water & Sewer Authority, has become a key proponent of the plan– and claims that City Council shares his vision for a reservoir that controversially would run under Interstate 64 and require a 9.5-mile pipeline to keep it filled.

"I see no one on Council who wants to retreat from the plan," says O'Connell in a March 14 email.

In the same email, sent to Authority director Tom Frederick and obtained under a Freedom of Information request, O'Connell notes that Councilors, instead of waiting for the May 6 hearing called by the mayor to explore dredging options, were actually planning to meet in closed session at their regularly scheduled meeting March 14 to discuss paying for the plan. "That moves us one step closer," O'Connell writes.

A month earlier, O'Connell boasted that a majority on the five-member body supported the plan– which has yet to earn federal approval, but which has been granted a key state permit. 

"At this point," wrote O'Connell, "I have 3 Councilors for sure saying they support the permit, period, with no qualification."

However, in interviews conducted in recent days with all five councilors, only former mayor David Brown expresses unqualified support for the existing proposal.

"I feel like we have a good plan," says Brown, calling recent assertions about dredging unfairly simplistic. He blasts the Hook for "doing a disservice to the community" by omitting specific dewatering land acquisition costs from alternate dredging scenarios and for omitting voluntary minimum flows for the Moorman's and Rivanna Rivers in asserting that dredging alone can supply the community's 50-year water needs. "I think it's not really comparing apples to apples," he adds.

But councilor Holly Edwards, along with fellow councilors Julian Taliaferro, Dave Norris, and Satyendra Huja, say they're looking forward to hearing more about dredging at the May 6 hearing Norris called to discuss the issue. "I want to have an open attitude and an open spirit," says Edwards.

Opponents of the official plan have expressed outrage that the Authority relied on a single engineering firm to steer the community away from dredging the existing Rivanna Reservoir. In 2005, local policy boards dismissed dredging as impractical after the firm, Harrisburg, Pennsylvania-based Gannett Fleming, issued a series of dire predictions, eventually claiming that dredging might cost as much as $225 million.

Several private contractors interviewed by the Hook, however, allege that dredging could cost less than 10 percent of that amount and could actually provide revenue streams in the form of soil sales to consumers, sand sales to contractors, and possibly even a runway extension for the nearby Charlottesville-Albemarle Airport.

"I think the Hook has done us all a service by bringing this back," says John Cruickshank, the chair of the executive committee of the local Sierra Club chapter.

As reported last week ["Revealing docs: Dredging foes run up the tab," April 17], Gannett Fleming was hired with a very specific mission: to implement a 2002 community water supply plan for $798,000 in fees. Arriving, however, at a time when the Water Authority was without a director, the company was able to secure a series of contract amendments from the five-member Authority board.

Gannett Fleming didn't just abandon the original mission, blaming what it alleged were faulty data; the company crafted an entirely new proposal. Along the way, the company has earned over $3 million from water-buyers, with more than $2.5 million more in billings set for designing the new dam.

Gannett Fleming's moves mean that the 2002 plan, which was estimated to cost $13.2 million, has been replaced with a $143 million plan that involves a new pipeline as well as clear-cutting about 54,000 trees– over 180 acres– to create a new Ragged Mountain dam whose reservoir would lap at the embankments on both sides of Interstate 64.

City Council has the power to stop this new plan without even pausing to vote– simply by refusing to sell land for the new reservoir.

If Council doesn't change course, water rates– which have aleady doubled since the drought of 2002– will double again under the capital spending budget the Authority approved in late March, as the Hook reported last week. And yet that capital plan contains no provision for the pipeline that's supposed to be the linchpin of the new water plan. In other words, rates could go far higher than another doubling.

Exactly how much local water bills will climb when all components are tallied remains unknown, but in the email exchange with O'Connell in February, Frederick revealed that water users aren't finished paying for Gannett Fleming.

"I've negotiated a small contract amendment (within the contingency you've authorized) for Gannett Fleming to prepare a presentation that largely refreshes what has already been studied," Frederick informed his board February 13.

O'Connell thought it best to keep that presentation under wraps a little longer.

"I suggest you not bring forward anything publicly until the City Council approves the utility budget in May," writes O'Connell [PDF]. "[That] approves the City funding for the water supply project."