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February 22, 2008

Water supply plan hotly debated

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20080221asapwater
      Panelists at the ASAP monthly meeting entitled "Waterproofing A growing Community:  Designs for our future water supply."  (L to R: Rich Collins; Kevin Lynch; Tom Frederick; and Jeff Werner)

The fissures forming between those who support the community’s 50-year water supply plan and those who do not were on full display Thursday evening at Westminster Presbyterian Church.  The questions before a panel at the Advocates for a Sustainable Albemarle Population’s monthly meeting: Do we have water supply plan that literally holds water?  Is it the best plan for our community?

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The topic made news last week as the community learned that the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality has approved a permit for the expansion of the Ragged Mountain Reservoir as well as a new pipeline connecting it to the South Fork Rivanna Reservoir.  These are the two major components of the water supply plan approved unanimously by Charlottesville City Council and the Albemarle County Board of Supervisors in mid-2006.

On February 21, 2008, four people who have been among those most heavily involved in the Rivanna Water and Sewer Authority’s (RWSA) development of the water supply plan shared their perspectives with an audience of about twenty-five ASAP members and local residents.  Supporters of the plan included panelists Jeff Werner, a Field Officer with the Piedmont Environmental Council (PEC), and Tom Frederick, Executive Director of the RWSA.  Opponents of the plan were represented by former City Councilor Kevin Lynch and ASAP co-founder Rich Collins, both members of the newly formed Citizens for a Sustainable Water Plan.

ASAP President Jack Marshall outlined the importance of water in the life of a community.  “There is…an inextricable connection between a community’s or a society’s supply of water and its population growth and well being…. It’s tempting to try to restrict the availability of water as a tool to limit growth.  ASAP however has never proposed such a strategy.  On the other hand, we are reluctant to see a water supply system built that allows for huge numbers of more than the anticipated population growth in the foreseeable future of our community.”  ASAP believes Charlottesville and Albemarle should define an optimal sustainable population size or range and make land use decisions that allows it to level off at a stationary size.  That population should determine the amount of water required.

Each panelist was given an opportunity to make opening remarks and then Marshall, as moderator, gave them an opportunity to contest each other’s statements.  This format generated a feisty exchange of views that lasted for over two hours and left numerous audience members frustrated that their questions were not asked or fully answered.

Werner described the community of environmental organizations that worked together in 2005-06 to champion the alternative to a pipeline to the James River.  The focus of this group was to develop a local watershed solution that would “drought proof” the public water supply and accommodate expected population growth during the next 50 years.

Frederick described a “thorough” public input process that led to the community’s adoption of a preferred water supply plan.  He described the RWSA’s goal of marrying compliance with state and federal requirements to the wishes of the community as to how to best use its natural resources.  He noted that the April 2006 public meeting at which the “Ragged Mountain Alternative” was selected was “almost a love fest.”  “There was a feeling that the community had finally, after 30 years of talking about [it], there was a feeling in the room that it was the right plan,” said Frederick.

Kevin Lynch was on City Council when he voted in favor of the water supply plan.  In an April 2006 message to his constituents, Lynch wrote: “I believe that the preferred alternative which Rivanna has developed shows that they have seriously considered and responded to community input. The plan is a phased expansion of the Ragged Mountain dam, ultimately to be connected via pipeline to the South Fork. Personally, I still have a few questions about the details of cost and phasing, but I think the overall concept is sound, is one the community can support, and can be quickly and economically implemented.”

Less than two years later, Lynch told the audience that he is now concerned that much of the flexibility and phasing of the plan has been lost in favor of an approach that would build the new Ragged Mountain Dam all at once.  Lynch says he prefers an incremental approach to the expansion of the Ragged Mountain Reservoir so that the community can revaluate its needs in future years before building the dam to its full height. 

Frederick said a phased approach for the dam would cost the community at least an additional $2-3 million and that the engineering models indicate the first phase would have to raise the reservoir pool 42 of the ultimate 45 feet to meet DEQ requirements.  That is if the pipeline connecting the reservoirs is not built simultaneously.  Frederick said three phasing and financing options for the different components are still very much a matter on which the Authority it taking public feedback.

Rich Collins, a former Chairman of the Rivanna Water and Sewer Authority before Frederick was hired, told the audience that he wanted to persuade them that he was not just a ‘no-growther,’ but one of the most informed individuals in the state on water and land use matters.  “I don’t care how many meetings [Frederick] held…Don’t build that dam at that height and tear down the existing dam until we have looked more carefully at the issues of dredging and reducing sediment inflow and in other ways using what is already a significant natural resource which we have paid for.”

Collins said environmentalists in 2005-06, including himself, mobilized themselves to ensure that the plan did not include a pipeline to the James River.  When that option was ruled out, “our critical faculties declined, our consensus evaporated.”  According to Collins, the environmental groups were adrift in a fog of celebration when they lost sight of dredging requirements and the opportunities to repair the Ragged Mountain Dam instead of replacing it.

At one point, Marshall let the panel debate phasing plans, rate increases, and the costs of financing the plan’s goals. Collins indicated he was willing to pay his fair share for infrastructure repairs.  “I am not crazy about paying for the costs of growth, I think growth should pay for itself.” 

Collins said the priorities were pretty clear to him.  “First of all, maintain and improve the infrastructure which we have ignored, for whatever reason, first.  And that’s already on the schedule and the City has to pay a lot more of it than the County.” 

Collins also suggested upgrading the system can satisfy multiple agendas.  Speaking to Frederick, Collins said, “It’s not clear to me Tom sometimes when you use the word ‘upgrade,’ whether you’re talking about expanding it to accommodate new growth or whether you think it is mostly the deterioration of existing structures. I think that is an important issue for everyone in this community to know.”

Werner said he was troubled by the suggestion that the plan would harm the environment.  “The thing I am most troubled by in this discussion, is that there seems to be, and I’ll put it bluntly, some objectives of people who are arguing against what’s been adopted [presenting this as] being environmentally irresponsible.”  Werner said if the community wants an “ecologically superior plan,” he encouraged them to work towards not only dredging the South Fork Rivanna Reservoir but also taking steps to reduce the inflow of sediment.  “That would mean this community spending more money, just like New York City did, to invest in protecting the watershed of its water supply,” said Werner. “What I hear is this argument of ‘we shouldn’t do this’ being masked in ‘this is not environmentally sustainable,’ but then correspondingly ‘but I don’t want to pay for it….’ Is this about money?  Is this about growth?  Is this about environmental issues?”

Frederick stressed that the RWSA is still open to public input and always will be.  “If there are ideas about how we can implement our plan that make the implementation better…we certainly want to hear it.”

Members of the Citizens for a Sustainable Water Plan have encouraged RWSA to take a second look at dredging to regain additional capacity from South Fork which was built in 1966 before cutting any trees for reservoir expansion at the Ragged Mountain Natural Area.  South Fork is losing approximately 1% of its capacity each year due to siltation. “Its simply not acceptable…for us to just let the South Fork Rivanna Reservoir silt up,” said Lynch.  Lynch argued that the current water plan does nothing about this problem.  Lynch also said he was skeptical of the RWSA consultant’s recommendations which led to the ruling out of dredging as uneconomical.  He said he couldn’t find any evidence that Gannet Flemming did dredging.  “They do dozens of pipelines and dozens of dams.  That’s what they do.  They are a dam and pipeline company.”

Frederick defended Gannet Flemming’s expertise.  “There’s been a lot of discussion in this community suggesting Gannet Fleming may not be qualified to study dredging.  I take strong issue with that.  I think people making those comments don’t know Gannet Flemming as a firm. You don’t understand the full capabilities of an engineering firm by looking at a page on a website….They are a capable qualified firm.  If this community wants to get another opinion, that’s the option of this community.”

In response to an audience comment, Lynch said the RWSA should consider dredging in conjunction with a system to prevent sediment from reaching South Fork.  Lynch suggested it would be quite straightforward to collect sediment dropped by a bend in the river upstream.  “It makes more sense to catch the sediment before it gets to the reservoir than it does to pull the sediment out. You don’t have to do that by slapping regulations on farmers and developers though.  Quite a lot of the sediment can be [removed] with sediment traps at the upstream part of the reservoir.  Rivanna hasn’t even looked at that.  It’s well known when, as a river…goes around a bend, it slows down and drops sediment load.  Ask Charlie Hurt who used to have a sand mining operation on the bend at Pantops.”

Frederick agreed that it was common sense to want to stop the sediment from coming in because otherwise with dredging “you would be digging a hole that keeps filling up.”  Frederick however said removing existing sediment would require a trap the size of the existing reservoir.  “The unfortunate reality and where I don’t quite agree totally with Kevin…once erosion occurs and sediment gets in the stream it’s not that easy to build traps to get it out.  You have to slow the movement of the water down so the material settles out.  For fine material that takes a very very wide area because the velocity has to be extremely slow.  The reservoir acts as a catchment for a lot of sediment now… to build a trap you are basically building another reservoir.  If the community is going to commit to removing the sediment, there is much less environmental impact by removing the sediment where it is in the reservoir now, than building another reservoir that would be similar in size to South Fork upstream.”

Lynch argued for the community to take its time evaluating all the options.  “We have a duty to responsibly plan for a water supply of the future….We don’t have a crisis going on right now.  We had the worst drought we have ever had in 2002 and during that time we didn’t even use one-third of our [reserve] water capacity.”  Lynch pointed the finger at local officials who he thinks have characterized this as a crisis.  “Unfortunately government bureaucrats since ‘9-11’ have learned that if you alarm the public sufficiently, you can get them to pay for just about anything no matter how stupid it is.  And unfortunately that is where we are right now.  This plan is not the best plan we can put forward.”

“Everyone is entitled to their opinions…” said Frederick.  “It’s not true to say that only a third of the reservoir space was used during the 2002 drought.  Our own records show that in mid-October of 2002 we were at 50%....There was only 60 days of supply before this community completely ran out….I haven’t mentioned the word ‘crisis’ tonight, I have mentioned ‘sound planning.’”

At the conclusion of the panel, Frederick reflected on the community’s penchant for studying problems.  “There’s a lot of smart people in this community and we have a lot of things to be thankful for and a lot of nice resources.  But one of the things that I hear from folks is that we tend to plan things and then re-plan things and re-plan things and we are not very good at actually implementing things.  Sometimes that can be a good thing, but sometimes if you do too much planning and avoid implementing solutions it can be a hindrance to a community.  I think this has been very well studied with a lot of input from a lot of people.”

Brian Wheeler

 

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