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February 21, 2009

Mayor Norris repackages his water plan for local Democrats

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20090221-DemBreakfast2 What happens when you take the Mayor, the Chairman of the Board of Supervisors, put them in a room of about 50 Democrats, then add water?  It quickly reaches the boiling point.  That was the outcome of the February 21, 2009 Democratic Breakfast when Mayor Dave Norris and Supervisor David Slutzky (Rio) squared off on the water supply plan.  They were joined in the panel discussion by Liz Palmer, a Board member of the Albemarle County Service Authority (ACSA).  Norris, used the event to announce his latest water plan proposal which calls for repairing and enlarging the existing Ragged Mountain Dam, built in 1908, as an alternative to building a new, much taller, dam at the same location.

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The panel began with Palmer providing background on the history of the current urban water supply system and the key components of the proposed 50-year community water supply plan.  Norris, Slutzky and Palmer actually all agree on the basic plan concept which was approved unanimously by City Council and the Board of Supervisors in 2006. 

  • All agree a higher dam is needed at the Ragged Mountain Natural area off Fontaine Avenue near Interstate 64 to store a greater supply of water for droughts and population growth. 
  • All agree that this larger reservoir needs to be connected by a new pipeline to the South Fork Rivanna Reservoir near Hollymead on Route 29 North.  
  • All agree the 13-mile Sugar Hollow pipeline which runs from the mountains above White Hall to Ragged Mountain Reservoir should be decommissioned.  
  • All agree there are environmental benefits to allowing natural stream flows from Sugar Hollow to be returned to the Moormans River (instead of being diverted to Ragged Mountain) where downstream the water can be collected again at South Fork.
  • All would prefer not to get our drinking water from the James River, one of the 32 other water supply alternatives that was under consideration in 2004-06.

The broad agreement on these topics, however, was not what led to the heat in the debate.  Norris acknowledged that the water plan was an issue that had divided environmentalists in the community.  “This is a difficult issue,” said Norris, “because there are smart well-intentioned, well-reasoned environmentalists on both sides of this issue in pretty substantial numbers.”  

20090221-DemBreakfast3
Supervisor David Slutzky (Left) and Mayor Dave Norris (Right)

The key areas lacking consensus relate to: the calculations about how much water the community’s growing population will need in 50 years; assessments of the community’s ability to conserve more water; whether the regulators who issue permits for the water supply plan will agree to changing conservation or population assumptions; the appropriate design size and costs of an expanded Ragged Mountain Dam and new pipeline; and the role of dredging the South Fork Rivanna Reservoir in the plan.

After listening to an hour of the discussion, City resident Lloyd Snook raised the white flag.  “I don’t know what the hell you all are talking about,” said Snook ending a debate between Palmer and Slutzky on the panel and opponents of the adopted water supply plan in the audience, including former City Councilor Kevin Lynch.  “You are arguing back and forth, using terms that the rest of us don’t know and don’t understand, and for those of us that were hoping to have some enlightenment, what we have is heat and not light.”

Elements of the “Norris Plan” summarized at the breakfast, including raising the existing Ragged Mountain Dam by thirteen feet and doing dredging at South Fork, come from alternatives also backed by Citizens for a Sustainable Water Plan and dismissed previously as infeasible or insufficient to meet projected water needs by other local officials. 

The four parts of the current Norris Plan include:

  • Increase conservation and efficiency with respect to water usage.
  • Reduce the storage needed at Ragged Mountain by dredging the South Fork Rivanna Reservoir, if it can be shown to be done in a cost effective way with a feasible disposal site for the sediment. 
  • Reduce the storage needed at Ragged Mountain by enlarging the diameter of the new pipeline connecting the reservoirs which he says will allow Ragged Mountain to be filled more quickly by water taken from South Fork.
  • Repair and enlarge the existing dam at Ragged Mountain by raising the pool elevation only by 13 feet instead of the 45 feet proposed.

For months, Mayor Norris has led Council’s effort to try and require new studies of conservation, water demand projections, dredging, dam design, and pipeline designs, all before any construction starts on the Ragged Mountain Dam. 

Late last year when Council passed a resolution directing the Rivanna Water and Sewer Authority (RWSA) to conduct a full re-evaluation of the water plan, it led to a rare “four boards” joint meeting on November 25, 2008 at which City Council backed off on most of its demands at the time.  Of the six studies requested by Council, only three are expected to be conducted in a way that may impact the plan.  One of those three studies was significantly scaled back while the other two were effectively already getting started. 

Then at a Council meeting in December, Norris sought to add additional requirements into a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) which was intended to simply summarize the next steps from the “four boards” meeting.  As a result of the City’s modifications, that MOU has been officially set aside by the Albemarle County Service Authority which refused to adopt it.

Norris continues to advocate for revisiting the 50-year water supply demand assumptions and for new conservation studies despite warnings from Tom Frederick, RWSA’s Executive Director, that regulatory agencies who have already approved the water plan’s permits may, as a result of these new studies, require the community to start a multi-year water planning process all over again.  Time, Frederick fears, is not on his side when it comes to supplying the community with sufficient water should we enter another drought or have a catastrophic failure of a deteriorating pipeline or dam.

20090221-DemBreakfast1 In his remarks, Supervisor David Slutzky questioned whether water conservation strategies could be the basis for scaling back the community’s projected water needs.  He said he didn’t think a decision needed to be made immediately about dredging the South Fork because doing so doesn’t provide enough new water capacity for the next 50 years.  Slutzky said he was open to discussing dredging options, but that he did have concerns about the ongoing impacts on the quality of life of those living around and using the reservoir resulting from the noise of the dredging equipment.

“The biggest concern that I have for all of this though, I’ve got to tell you, is the concern of uncertainty,” said Slutzky. “We’ve got a water supply number, how many gallons we will need based on…our estimation of how many gallons people are gonna likely use based on hard to predict behaviors in the future, and based on some assumptions on demographics…”

Slutzky said he supports the current water supply plan as the best long range plan for the community given the uncertainties around population growth and the location where new residents will decide to live.  Slutzky said that if Albemarle is successful channeling more of its growth into the designated growth areas over the next 50 years, then a lot more residents than previously projected could be on the urban water supply.  Slutzky said he would rather address the community’s long term needs now rather than restart the search for more water in 20-30 years.

Charlottesville Tomorrow asked Mayor Norris how much water his plan would supply for the community in fifty years.  He said he did not have it broken down from that perspective, and that instead he was approaching the problem from the demand side.  “If we get more aggressive with conservation, we should be able to reduce the long term demand projections,” said Norris.  The money saved from a smaller project at Ragged Mountain, Norris argues, could be channeled into dredging, sedimentation prevention, and a bigger pipe connecting the reservoirs.

Norris said he accepts the population estimates in the current plan.  When pressed about what targeted water supply demand his plan could satisfy, Norris said he was convinced that the water conservation study currently underway by the City and the ACSA would help identify a revised 50-year water supply goal. 

“If these other things line up, and they are demonstrably more cost-effective and feasible, then why would we not chose that course,” said Norris. “Unless, and this is a big ‘unless,’ you believe as Mr. Slutzky does, that we need to assume a much greater demand than we are currently assuming, and be prepared for a much greater demand in the future.”

The next steps for the water supply plan will be discussed at two upcoming meetings.  On Monday, the Rivanna Water and Sewer Authority Board is expected to take action to convene an expert panel to assess the geotechnical data, engineering design, and projected costs of the larger Ragged Mountain Dam proposed in the current water plan.  On March 3, 2009, the “four boards” will convene again (City Council, Board of Supervisors, ACSA, RWSA), this time to receive the final report from the South Fork Reservoir Stewardship Task Force.

Brian Wheeler

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