NEWS- Empty file? State has no record of water plan
A group of citizen activists road-tripped to Richmond last week to explore the status of the Community Water Supply Plan, the one that supposedly demands that Charlottesville area water users meet Year 2055 needs by spending over $100 million for a new pipeline/reservoir system. But what they found on their May 23 visit is that, in the eyes of state regulators with the Department of Water Quality, there's no Plan there.
"They've been asserting that the DEQ has endorsed a plan," says critic Kevin Lynch. "They've been misleading the public."
Lynch, a former Charlottesville vice-mayor-turned-water-activist, says that state law gives area officials three years to file their plan. But by then, Lynch fears, the Rivanna Water & Sewer Authority's scheme to put the controversial pipeline-dependent reservoir on two sides of Interstate 64 will already have commenced with the felling of 180 acres of a century-old forest.
"We've been told over and over by Rivanna that we have a plan," says Lynch. "But when we asked the state, we found there is no plan from Rivanna."
Area governments have not been reluctant to tout the alleged 50-year water plan. On May 14, all six Albemarle supervisors reiterated their support for the "plan," and a little over a month earlier, the chair of that body teamed up with his counterpart in the City of Charlottesville– as well as the heads of the Rivanna Authority and the Albemarle County Service Authority– to purchase half-page ads (cost: about $4,000) in various local newspapers (including the Hook) "to strongly reaffirm our continuing commitment to the community water supply plan."
How does anyone really know what the Plan is?
For months, Lynch and his fellow Citizens for a Sustainable Water Plan, concerned about the official scheme's $143 million estimated price tag– which also covers a pair of upgraded treatment plants– have been vexed by the difficulty of trying to find the Plan.
Anyone clicking on "Community Water Supply Plan" at the Rivanna Authority's website, rivanna.org, confronts 29 different links. The only easy link to any cost is to a five-page estimate of the over-$223 million top price to dredge the Rivanna Reservoir– more than a recent Panama Canal contract.
There's a document entitled "Now What... [PDF]" that alleges– dubiously, in light of some unsolicited dredging estimates– that the DEQ concluded that "all reasonably available information has been considered." Moreover, "Now What..." even claims that the reservoir/pipeline plan is "the least environmentally damaging, practicable means" of meeting the community's water needs.
Least damaging? The links includes a 51-page "mitigation plan [PDF]" showing the countless steps, and another document shows that $7.7 million [JPG] will be necessary create a new forest and other steps to compensate for the environmental damage caused by erecting a 9.5-mile pipeline across 32 streams and by building a new reservoir that requires clear-cutting over 180 acres of mature forest and flooding 2.6 acres of wetlands and over two miles of streams.
Those who still want to know the total cost will have to pull up the technically challenging 93-page "Permit Support Document [PDF]" and make it to page 74 to learn the price– $142.8 million– as well as the rationale: it's cheaper than a $150.9 million pipeline stretching to the James River.
There's even a "personal perspective [PDF]" from Dr. Elizabeth Palmer, who serves on the boards of both the Albemarle County Service Authority and the Ivy Creek Foundation (which oversees the Ragged Mountain Natural Area), that relates her "confidence and pride" in what she calls the "Community Water Supply Plan." Yet in the world of the DEQ– the realm of law and state regulations– the activists are right. There is no such plan.
A document obtained by the Citizens under the state Freedom of Information Act found that Authority director Tom Frederick had been told at least three years ago that there might be a problem with his terminology.
"We can call it what we want locally," he wrote in an April 2005 email to the Authority Board, blaming a predecessor, and acknowledging the "unintended confusion" of using words to refer to something that doesn't exist.
There's little confusion in the details of Title 9 [PDF] of State Water Control Board regulations which is currently being phased in. In no uncertain terms, Virginia officials are expecting to receive several specific things from the Authority:
• decade-by-decade estimates of water needs
• a list of 300,000+ gallon-a-month users
• bona fide population estimates, and
• evidence of a conservation plan
So far, all the state has are documents making the case for one part of a water supply plan– as required under the old law: the new pipeline/reservoir. In February, the DEQ issued the water permit that allows it to be built.
"From a legal standpoint, these two actions are distinctly different," Authority director Frederick tells the Hook in an email, "and neither is currently a prerequisite of the other."
Frederick contends that local governments voted in 2006 to authorize regional planning, but Lynch notes that minutes of the City Council and Albemarle Supervisors meetings show only a vote for an unpriced reservoir/pipeline concept (which he no longer supports).
What the two can agree on is that the community has already beaten the November 2 deadline by which they need to notify the state that they intend to file a plan using the "most appropriate and sustainable alternatives."
The Citizens group contends the most sustainable solution involves dredging, which local officials are now considering only as a "maintenance" strategy. The Citizens hope that one private firm's recent unsolicited offer to do a full-blown, turn-key dredge of two million cubic yards of sediment for $24 million might get a favorable nod from the Rivanna Authority board or from the governments that appoint its members.
On Monday, May 19– the same day the Rivanna Authority raised [PDF] the City's wholesale water price 2.65 percent and sewer price by 10.43 percent– the editor of the Hook asked the Authority board when it might issue a Request for Proposals for dredging and whether it would tell the state about the new information calling into serious question its earlier allegations about the expense of dredging.
"We'll take those under advisement, and I'm sure we will consider those," said Authority director Mike Gaffney, continuing a board policy of not answering unscripted questions.
SIDEBAR- City unveiling: Council looks at higher water rates, giant fees
Charlottesville City Council will hold a public hearing on utility rates next Monday, June 2. Residential customers may learn why water rates are rising 5.2 percent and sewer rates 8.3 percent. The monthly bill for the average residential city customer who uses 763 cubic feet (5,708 gallons) of water per month will rise from $30.86 to $33.43. But the big news is a set of new connection fees.
Last year, the fees for new water and sewer connections totaled just $1,600 for a house. This year, the combined fees total $6,010. A prospective commercial customer hooking up a two-inch water line and accompanying sewer service will see the connection fee jump from $1,600 to $48,080. The idea is to get newbies to pay for the capital costs of expanding and renewing the infrastructure.
While most of the sewer rate increase covers the spike in the wholesale price, according to a document [DOC] recently released by the City, the largest portion of the water increase– about 42 percent– comes from an expected lower volume of water sales to city and university customers. The rest of the water price hike is nearly equally divided between a rise in the wholesale water rates and a jump in operating costs.
The City's water/sewer departments intend to spend $146,635 this year for vehicle replacement, up from zero last year. Additionally, personnel costs are climbing rapidly. For starters, the concept of merit pay was unveiled last year, and now has a budget of over $34,000. Additionally, retirement contributions have climbed from $168,770 in 2007 to $297,296 in the current budget. In fiscal 2007, total personnel costs were $1.3 million, but last year the personnel budget jumped to $1.8 million. And this year's budget calls for spending $2.1 million on personnel.
But it's not just rising operating costs. Construction contracts are shooting from the $3 million authorized in fiscal 2008 to $8.6 million budgeted this year, a 285 percent increase. The construction projects will be funded the same way as last year, by taking on debt– specifically, by issuing bonds.–Spencer