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November 20, 2007

Council wants more options for community water supply plan

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20071119waterAt least three members of the Charlottesville City Council are expressing reservations about the 50-year community water supply plan, which was approved unanimously by Council in June of 2006. However, Councilors Dave Norris and Julian Taliaferro were not on the Council at the time.

Residents with concerns about the plan lobbied City Council to schedule a public hearing to receive additional feedback on the plan. The main element of the water supply plan involves building a taller dam at Ragged Mountain Reservoir in order to increase the storage capacity. The group Friends of the Ragged Mountain Reservoir believe the plan sacrifices natural areas, and that dredging the South Fork Rivanna Reservoir (SFRR) deserves another look. Dredging to remove sedimentation from SFRR was earlier deemed to be too expensive.

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The public hearing began with a report from Tom Frederick, Executive Director of the Rivanna Water and Sewer Authority. Prior to the meeting, Frederick sent a letter to the Council that addressed many of the concerns of the group. He wrote that the four local boards with jurisdiction with jurisdiction (Albemarle County Service Authority, RWSA, Albemarle County Board of Supervisors, and City Council) voted a combined 22-0 in May and June of 2006 to approve of the plan. 

He also pointed out that a wide range of groups support the plan to expand Ragged Mountain Reservoir, including the Rivanna Conservation Society, the Nature Conservancy, the Southern Environmental Law Center, the Piedmont Environmental Council and the Free Enterprise Forum. Frederick said their support stemmed from the fact that the adopted plan keeps the water supply in the community, rather than piping it in from the James River.

"This community has struggled for over 20 years, dating back to the beginning of property acquisition for a "Buck Mountain Reservoir" in the early 1980's, to find a new water supply that can be permitted by appropriate regulatory authorities," a process he says has now been successful. He reminded the Council that the community later found out that the federal and state authority would not authorize a new reservoir at that location.

Frederick said he was charged by the RWSA Board to put together a plan with community input, but also to find a solution that would be acceptable to regulators. He told Council the adopted plan is the “least environmentally damaging” of the options that were available in 2006. Frederick acknowledged that project will be expensive. In September, the RWSA announced it would cost just over $142 million to build the new dam, a new pipeline to the SFRR, and upgrades to area water treatment plants.

Councilor Kevin Lynch said he was concerned existing residents of Charlottesville were going to be pay for infrastructure that will be used by newcomers.  Frederick said there are three possible scenarios in terms of phasing the elements of the plan, and that the community still has to decide what will be acceptable. He added that he is aware that consumers in both the County and City are concerned about how much their water bill will go up to pay for the construction costs. A cost-sharing agreement is currently being negotiated between the Albemarle County Service Authority and City staff. The RWSA is not a direct party in those talks.

Frederick said Council should keep in mind that the plan is for the next 50 years, and includes major upgrades and replacements.

“It's not appropriate to look at that entire price tag as being solely the result of growth,” Frederick said. “The existing Ragged Mountain Dam, the upper dam is 122 years old. The lower dam is 99 years old. We have a Sugar Hollow pipeline that's 80 years old.”

Councilor Lynch pointed out that RWSA has drastically increased its budget since 2002, and asked what infrastructure has been replaced in that time. Frederick said a lot of planning and design work has been done to make repairs, but when he came to the job in 2004, there were no plans in place. He said that City residents can expect to see a lot of repairs in the next two years.

Frederick said that in the spring of 2005, dredging was deemed by elected officials to be too expensive in terms of expanding the water supply. Lynch asked what the future capacity of the SFRR will be, but Frederick said he could not be sure without an extensive study of the watershed to determine where the sediment is coming from.

Councilor Kendra Hamilton said he had not seen any documentation to back up the claim that dredging is too expensive. Frederick responded that he recently asked Gannet Flemming to check their estimate again, and a report will be posted on the RWSA website soon. But, he said fully dredging SFRR down to the bedrock to restore its original capacity would cost between $200 and $225 million. Much of that cost would come in transporting the sediment.

Hamilton also asked about the possibility of using Luck Stone’s Shadwell Quarry as a reservoir in the future. Frederick said he did not think that was viable option for several reasons. First, the County's water protection ordinances are designed safeguard water supply in the western half of the County. Shadwell is in the east, and the group Streamwatch has reported that water quality is not as good in that section of the county.

“Some of the areas draining the Rivanna River in the Shadwell area come from tributaries that have been classified by Streamwatch as poor water quality,” Frederick said. He also said the existing water infrastructure is designed to distribute from west to east, and reconfiguring to make it move the other way would be problematic. He also said that the Rivanna River is considered by the state to be a scenic river, and the General Assembly would have to approve of a new reservoir.

Councilor Dave Norris wanted an update on the acreage that was going to be lost when the new dam is built and filled. Frederick said discussions were taking place, but an exact amount of acreage would not be known until planning was complete.

Eight people spoke at the public hearing, and they were split between environmental groups that support the plan, and others that say it is against the City's interests

Dede Smith says the price tag is too high for the City, both financially and in terms of a loss of ecological resources. She said there were still other plans that had not been fully explored, and suggested that Council has the power to reopen the plan.

Rich Collins, who chaired the RWSA in 2002, said the process to date has not been transparent, and that environmental groups supporting the adopted plan are only doing so because it avoids the James River pipeline.  “The groups were so ecstatic that we stopped the James River as being the source that we dropped our guard and forgot about all the other things that we hold dear,” Collins said.

Joe Mooney said dredging must be an option, and said Gannett Flemming does not perform dredging operations, and that's the reason their estimate for dredging is so high. He called for a second estimate from an independent firm. “They have given the only opinion on dredging feasibility and costs that we have to date,” he said. “I disagree, as an amateur, with the idea that dredging is the most expensive of all the projects. I think that it's possible based on some research I've done.”

Betty Mooney said it was not fair for Charlottesville to have to pay such a high price to increase capacity for growth that would occur mostly in the county. She acknowledged that the current plan kept the water supply in the watershed, but that the loss of 30,000 to 50,000 trees was not worth it. Mooney asked for a written plan that outlines the cost for all steps.

However, Ridge Schuyler of The Nature Conservancy said the adopted plan works because it meets future demand, restores natural stream flows to the Moorman's River, and keeps the water in the watershed.

“It is restoring the flows to the rivers of the Rivanna that this plan achieves, while also simultaneously meeting the demand of the people who live here,” Schuyler said. “The Ragged Mountain Natural Area is a lovely place, and I would only have to say that when I look at the fact that at the Ragged Mountain Natural Area, we're going to move trails. We're not going to lose them, we're going to move them. The mussels that live in the rivers that are being affected by altered flows can't move from where they are.”

Jeff Werner, land-use field officer for the Piedmont Environmental Council, said by his calculations, there are over 3,500 housing units in the development pipeline within Charlottesville city limits.

“All of us who live in the City, we rely on a reservoir that was built a hundred years ago,” Werner said. “When I moved to Charlottesville, no one said you now need to pay for your piece of the reservoir. So, people a hundred years ago planned for the future and we're in that situation now.”

After the public hearing, Councilors weighed in with their thoughts. Only Mayor David Brown did not have reservations about the plan.

Councilor Lynch, who voted for the plan in June 2006, said that he wasn't sure if the adopted plan did represent the best possible alternative. He also questioned whether all of the plan needed to be implemented right away, and drew comparisons to the Metropolitan Planning Organization's 25-year planning horizon for transportation projects. Lynch suggested that the City wait for several years for the regulatory climate to change so that a bladder can be placed on the South Fork Rivanna Reservoir, which he said would boost storage capacity.

“I believe firmly that in twenty years we will have better options open to us than what we have right now,” Lynch said. “The fifty-year plan is the best plan that can be put together given the regulatory climate that we're in right now.” He also repeated that the Shadwell Quarry may yet be an option, and predicted that dredging technologies would also be cheaper in the future.

“Certainly nothing that we've seen and been shown tonight looks anything like implementation, and I want to be very careful before we sign on to a $142 million dollar project that we don't end up spending any more of that than we need to out of the City's pocket when the City doesn't need it,” Lynch said.

Councilor Dave Norris said he agreed with much of what Lynch had to say, and said there was merit in taking another look at some of the other alternatives that would keep the water supply in the watershed. He also wanted to see more details in terms of how the City would be compensated for loss of land at Ragged Mountain Natural Area, and that he wanted a one-to-one match for all of the trees that were going to be lost.

Councilor Julian Taliaferro said he did not think dredging had been fully evaluated, and wondered why the City was in such a rush to finalize a plan. Neither he or Norris were on Council when the plan was adopted.

But Mayor Brown said that dredging was looked exhaustively, and the consensus among the four boards was that it was too expensive to have to deal with the sediment. In response to Lynch's comments that the future may open up other alternatives, Brown said he did not think it was prudent to develop a water supply plan based on the hopes that the rules would change.

Councilor Kendra Hamilton said she thought it was possible that Council had dropped the ball by not continuing to pay attention to the issue after voting to approve the plan in June 2006.

Councilor Norris said he didn't think the public hearing was meant to derail the existing plan, but wanted more details.

No action was taken by City Council after the public hearing.

Timeline for podcast:

1:00 - Comments from Tom Frederick, Executive Director of the Rivanna Water and Sewer Authority
9:22 – Councilor Kevin Lynch asks Frederick to detail why the cost is so high
14:38 – Lynch asks Frederick what infrastructure has been replaced in the last five years
16:48 – Councilor Taliaferro asks about sedimentation in the South Fork Rivanna Reservoir, prompting a discussion about whether that reservoir will be used in the future
24:49 – Councilor Hamilton asks Frederick why dredging is considered to be too expensive
26: 17 – Hamilton asks about the possibility of using Shadwell Quarry in the future
28:46 – Councilor Norris asks about how the land at Ragged Mountain will be compensated
32:19 – City resident Colette Hall
34:14 – City resident Dede Smith
37:27 – Former RWSA Chair and City resident Rich Collins
41:05 – City resident Joe Mooney
47:15 – City resident Betty Mooney
50:39 – Ridge Schuyler, director of the Piedmont Program at The Nature Conservancy,
54:01 – Jeff Werner of the Piedmont Environmental Council
59:28 – County resident Tom Jones
1:03:32  - Councilor Lynch describes why he thinks more study is needed
1:13:09 – Councilor Norris responds
1:14:45 – Councilor Taliaferro says dredging SFRR needs to be looked at more
1:15:18 – Mayor Brown defends the June 2006 vote to approve the plan

Sean Tubbs

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