Four boards negotiate recommendations from reservoir task force report
At a joint meeting on March 3, 2009, the four boards with authority over the local water and sewer system adopted five out of seven recommendations of the South Fork Rivanna Stewardship Task Force. Albemarle County Supervisors got approval for an additional request to seek legal advice on whether implementing actions from a dredging feasibility study, or otherwise modifying the approved 50-year water supply plan, would impact the federal and state permits that have already been issued. Charlottesville City Council made clear its desire to obtain additional information on the costs and feasibility of dredging for additional water capacity.
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Michael Gaffney, Chairman of the Rivanna Water and Sewer Authority (RWSA), set the stage for the two and a half hour discussion by reminding everyone of the consensus reached at previous meetings. In the summer of 2008, both the City Council and the Albemarle County Board of Supervisors passed resolutions reaffirming support for the adopted community water supply plan. The fourth board is the Albemarle County Service Authority (ACSA).
“Within those resolutions, they also asked the RWSA to pursue the feasibility of dredging as a means of maintaining the South Fork Rivanna Reservoir,” Gaffney said. That lead to the creation of the task force, which made its recommendations in a January 2009 report which recommended the following steps be taken: (summary below, click here to download detailed list):
- Investigate if inflowing sediment will likely create new wetlands and if so, determine if they can legally be removed.
- Investigate feasibility of constructing a sediment fore bay for the reservoir to capture sediment before it enters.
- Maintain a dialogue with the University of Virginia and "recreational users" of the South Fork Reservoir on conditions that inhibit future rowing and "recreational pursuits."
- Continue "Community" efforts to reduce sediment and pollutants entering the Reservoir.
- Continue to monitor growth of hydrilla and study effective management options.
- Investigate "selective dredging" when "decision makers" conclude that benefits may be "worth the cost."
- Determine in relation to other infrastructure financial priorities if the public interest is served by issuing a Request for Proposals for "removal of sediment".
Gaffney said the March 3, 2009 meeting of the four Boards was to give direction on how the RWSA should proceed with respect to dredging.
Albemarle County Supervisor Dennis Rooker (Jack Jouett), who served on the task force, said he insisted on the first recommendation because he felt the Army Corps of Engineers and the Department of Environmental Quality might not allow the dredging of the South Fork if federally-protected wetlands had been created due to sedimentation.
City Councilor Satyendra Huja said he thought the four Boards needed to answer the question of whether a detailed dredging study of the reservoir should be conducted, as called for in the sixth recommendation.
“It seems to me that if you’re going to preserve the reservoir in some fashion, whether it is for water or for future capacity, you need to at least do the study,” Huja said. Supervisor Sally Thomas (Samuel Miller) described the situation as a “chicken and egg” scenario, and said the task force recommended that the four Boards spend more time considering the question of “why” to dredge.
“If the ‘why’ for example has to do with recreation, that’s going to end up with a very different ‘how’ answer,” Thomas said. “If you decide to do something different than the water supply plan and dredge for water supply then you would in fact be studying a different type of dredging.”
Huja said either way, the community should do a more detailed study “than [what] we have so far.” Councilor Julian Taliaferro agreed. “All I’ve seen is the cost continuing to escalate and escalate and that really bothers me,” Taliaferro said. “I’ve not seen firm figures on anything.”
ACSA Board Member Liz Palmer (Samuel Miller) said that Gannett Fleming’s cost estimate of $232 million for dredging was for the life of the entire 50-year water supply plan and assumed continuous operations. She said the RWSA decided not to pursue dredging for water supply because it alone did not meet the projected water supply needs of the community.
“Dredging was taken off the table because it didn’t supply the water that we needed,” Palmer said.
Supervisor David Slutzky (Rio) said there might be benefits to dredging in addition to building all of the elements of the adopted community water supply plan.
“There could be a water supply argument that dredging the [South Fork Reservoir] would enhance the storage capacity of the already agreed upon system, and it may have some strategic benefit… that we reduce the risk of further sedimentation, creating new wetlands and reducing the opportunities we may have [in 50 or 75 years],” Slutzky said.
But Palmer said that if the RWSA had the money to dredge, it would be more beneficial to invest those resources in building both the new Ragged Mountain Dam and the South Fork pipeline as soon as possible. She said there would be no need to do a full bathymetric study of the reservoir now if dredging would not occur for another 20 years.
Slutzky said he could support the cost of a full feasibility study because of the uncertainties in the rest of the water supply plan. “My instincts tell me that we should clearly be racing forward to implement the water supply plan,” Slutzky said. “On a separate track, it’s a much smaller amount of money to do a dredging study [alongside] all of the other work that we have to move forward.”
Councilor Huja said that the full study would cost only a few hundred thousand dollars compared to the hundreds of millions of dollars it will take to construct the adopted water plan. He asked RWSA Executive Director Tom Frederick to remind the four Boards how much a dredging feasibility study would cost. Frederick said RWSA is assuming that it would cost $275,000, but said that figure came from Gahagan and Bryant. Slutzky asked for an estimate for the entire water supply plan. Frederick said the community would have to be patient while the recently named Independent Technical Review Team studies the design of the new Ragged Mountain Dam.
Slutzky said there would be an argument for additional capacity due to the County’s growth management policies. He said that if the County continues to shepherd growth into the designated growth areas, the urban ring will need more water. He thought knowing how much a restorative dredging would cost would be a “useful piece of information” for the community to know.
Supervisor Ken Boyd (Rivanna) said nothing in the task force’s report changed his mind on the community water supply plan.
I’ve not seen anything in what the [Task Force] report says, or what I’ve seen from the public, that takes me away from the 50 year plan because there are an awful lot of unknowns in these alternatives that are [being put] forward… mostly with regulatory authorities and what they’ll allow us to do.”
Mayor Dave Norris said that from his perspective, the task force did exactly what the four chairs asked. “The biggest lesson I learned from it is that… publicly financed dredging really doesn’t make a whole lot of sense outside of water supply gains,” Norris said.
Norris said he wants to know more information about possible disposal sites for dredged material. “We may well choose, depending on how these other pieces of [water supply plan] play out, that we may well choose to dredge earlier if that promises to be more environmentally and economically responsible path,” Norris said.
Thomas asked Norris what kind of information he wanted, and claimed there would always be a disposal site as long as the community can pay for it. She said the price for dredging could drop given that a nearby quarry owned by Dr. Charles Hurt could be used.
Slutzky said he didn’t want to know more about dredging in order to make a cost comparison. “I’m convinced we need build the dam to full height, and we need to put in the pipeline and we need to move forward with that as soon as possible,” Slutzky said.
Supervisor Rooker said he was concerned that if other water supply options were added to the existing plan, federal and state regulators may ask to reopen the process.
“If we do not do the plan that we ultimately adopted, the favorite plan of the regulators’ perspective was the pipeline to the James [River],” Rooker said. “You can’t just assume that we could string together any four or five pieces and say that’s the plan. You have to go through the process. You have to go through the comparative process…”
Norris said he fully agreed with the first five recommendations, but said he wanted more information on the disposal site. “What we need to know is, is there a feasible disposal site of the scale that would create the kind of water supply, whether it’s for enhancing the plan or supplementing the plan,” Norris said.
Slutzky asked Norris if he would support so-called “opportunistic” dredging to hold the regulatory status-quo. Norris said that would just delay the information the City wants. “What you’re saying is let’s proceed incrementally with some things that may down the line allow us to look at dredging for water capacity,” Norris said. “My point is that if we’re going to spend a good amount of time, energy and money investigating those steps that might eventually get us to a broader study, let’s just do the broader study.”
Boyd asked Norris if that meant he was ready to do all the work to create an RFP for full dredging for water capacity. Norris said he would not be opposed to that.
Palmer said she thought there was no rush to enhance the water supply plan, and so there should be no rush to conduct a full study. “Even at the $85 million for the dam and $56 million for the pipeline, adding dredging to it is still more expensive because dredging has to be done in combination with other things,” Palmer said. “I don’t think it’s a delay tactic. I think it’s a prudent use of public funds to answer these questions first.”
Slutzky said implementing the task force’s first recommendation would answer a lot of questions which would inform what to do next. Norris acknowledged that there is a big uncertainty over whether the dredging alternative is feasible, but said it was worth making sure to see if the community could save money. He said the estimates for a full restorative dredging have ranged from $31 million to $225 million.
“Do we not owe it to our ratepayers and our taxpayers to at least explore the feasibility of that option and figure out if that changes the water supply equation?” Norris asked. “I want to nail that number down and I don’t think it’s going to cost us $300,000 to nail that number down.”
Rooker said the only way to get the number nailed down would be to get to the RFP stage. Palmer said the quarry would have to be purchased and she warned that if the community really wanted to rethink the water supply plan, it would be useful to get a legal opinion on how that would affect the permits already issued.
Councilor David Brown said Council’s concerns stem from City residents’ perception about why dredging is not part of the plan. He pointed to an e-mail from the Sierra Club’s representative on the Task Force which stated that dredging was dismissed because it is too expensive.
“That’s what the e-mail says. I’m just quoting the e-mail. That’s a perception out there that exists within the City, that we made a decision that was based on bad information,” Brown said. “My belief is that we didn’t reject it because it costs too much. My belief we rejected it because it did not bring enough water.”
Brown said that Council had to represent the concerns of City residents, and that City residents want more information on the costs of dredging. “I’d like to see us just go ahead and look at dredging. I agree with the new comment saying that if any of this touches the water supply plan, we should get a legal opinion on what we would have to do next,” Brown said. “Maybe we can tweak the plan a little bit.”
Slutzky said he wanted to modify the first recommendation to obtain legal advice to determine whether studying a full restorative dredging would trigger regulatory review. He asked Council if they could support adopting the task force’s recommendations with that amendment. Norris responded that Council was concerned about the language in the sixth recommendation on dredging.
Towards the end of the meeting, Slutzky asked Norris what the City wants to happen in addition to the task force’s recommendations. Norris responded that he would like to see a new bathymetric study, and he would like “to spend some money” to investigate disposal sites. Slutzky asked Norris to be more specific so the RWSA could have clear direction.
Huja said the RWSA should consider the RFP that was prepared for it in June 2008. County Executive Bob Tucker suggested that the City further study the RFP to determine if it meets their needs. Rooker said that the RFP would not provide a cost estimate unless contractors submitted bids. Norris acknowledged that it would not provide exact numbers.
Thomas said the City would be right to nail down the cost of the storage site, but said that a conducting a full dredging study could mislead the public into thinking that both the County and City agreed that dredging should take place.
Brown suggested amending the sixth bullet to allow the possibility of studying for large-scale dredging. In particular, to see if there are any physical or regulatory obstacles to a full restorative dredging.
Huja said that the cost of doing a study was “not a big deal” compared to the cost of implementing the adopted plan. Slutzky agreed, but said it was worth doing the regulatory and legal investigations first in order.
“I have a suspicion that once we answer the expanded version of the first bullet, we’re going to realize that changing that permit doesn’t take much to trigger the risk of going back to the James River [option],” Slutzky said.
That prompted Huja to say he supports the adopted plan, but just wants additional information to “reassure us that it’s the right decision.”
Frederick said the June 2008 RFP called for a series of studies similar to what dredging firm Gahagan and Bryant had recommended when there appeared before the community in May 2008. While Gahagan and Bryant suggested they could do the work for $275,000, Frederick said the only way to get a true cost estimate would be to issue an RFP.
Palmer asked Councilors if she was correct in thinking that they supported the adopted plan, but just wanted to get more information on the costs of dredging.
“I fully support the basic framework of the water supply plan, but I do think the water supply plan is not prescriptive. The water supply plan is permissive. It does not say we cannot do dredging. In fact, the water supply plan allows for the possibility of dredging. The water supply plan does not say we have to build a 45-foot dam. It says we can build up to 45 feet. Now, there’s a legitimate question about if we tweak any of these numbers, does that make us have to go back to square one on the permit? And I totally agree that question needs to be addressed. I fully support the new pipeline. I fully support the idea of linking the two reservoirs and improving the infrastructure, but I think there are some pieces that we’ve already agreed to study and this is the last piece that needs to fall into place and once all these pieces are in place we can actually start implementing the water supply plan,” Norris said.
Slutzky recommended that the four Boards adopt the first five recommendations, and suggested that City Council review the RFP for dredging studies and recommend their own RFP.
“If it proves to be the case that we learn from this first bullet as modified that tweaking the water supply plan is more problematic then perhaps you first thought, you may well shift in your thinking to looking at dredging through a different lens which is the lens of what about the long-term water storage capacity and what about the other community benefits?” Slutzky said.
Norris said he had no problem with what Slutzky recommended. Thomas wanted Frederick to confirm that he had clear direction on what the amended bullet meant. He phrased the question as: “What are the legal implications of modifications to the water supply plan?” Frederick said he was okay with that, but pointed out that any legal advice received would be privileged information given to the RWSA Board.
Don Wagner of the ACSA said his board did not want County ratepayers to pay for additional studies, given that the adopted plan meets the water supply needs for the next 50 years.
Huja asked if the City could wait to vote on the motion until it had prepared its version of the RFP. Slutzky said he thought it was a good idea to move ahead and get the legal advice as soon as possible, and that the City Council could decide for itself how to proceed. Huja still resisted and said he thought the matter could wait another 30 days. Norris explained to him that the City’s position was being respected.
“Everybody understands that if the City is not behind the water supply plan, the path forward is not going to happen,” Norris said.
After all parties independently adopted a motion supporting the first five recommendations, as modified, RWSA Chair Mike Gaffney said that his agency would diligently pursue the legal questions as soon as possible. City Council's motion included the added stipulation that the City would review the 2008 dredging RFP and amend it for further consideration by the other boards. Gaffney urged the City to proceed with its study of the dredging RFPs as quickly possible.
Sean Tubbs & Brian Wheeler
TIMELINE FOR PODCAST:
- 01:25 - Various chairs call their Boards to order
- 01:45 - Mike Gaffney of the RWSA gives an introduction
- 05:05 - Sally Thomas begins her report
- 07:35 - Thomas gives more details on what the task force learned
- 10:35 - Thomas explains how the task force was asked to predict the reservoir's future
- 15:15 - Thomas begins reporting the various recommendations of the task force
- 16:25 - Supervisor Dennis Rooker explains why he wanted task force to recommend legal opinion on wetlands
- 17:45 - Thomas resumes her report
- 26:55 - Discussion begins with Supervisor Lindsay Dorrier asking a question about the nature of hydrilla
- 28:59 - Slutzky asks question about sedimentation upstream leading to discussion
- 33:25 - Charlottesville Mayor Norris asks about the role public input played in the process
- 35:45 - Dorrier asks for a comparison of the Occaquan Reservoir in Northern Virginia
- 36:30 - Norris asks if the study spent any time analyzing potential dewatering or storage sites for dredged material
- 39:30 - Huja said there needs to be a more detailed study
- 39:43 - Councilor Julian Taliaferro says he wants information on costs for different kinds of dredging
- 43:53 - Councilor David Slutzky seeks to reframe the dredging conversation in terms of boosting capacity of 50 year plan even more
- 50:18 - Huja said he would like to see a more detailed study
- 52:23 - RWSA Executive Director Tom Frederick explains how much a dredging feasibility might cost
- 53:43 - Thomas says the four Boards know how much sediment will be freed up by
- 56:23 - Supervisor Ken Boyd says nothing in the task force's report changed his mind on the water supply plan
- 1:00:10 - Slutzky says that demand numbers may be underestimating how much water will be needed to meet growing population
- 1:02:40 - Brown says he supports getting full cost estimate for restorative dredging
- 1:05:14 - Councilor Holly Edwards reads a statement about her experience on the task force
- 1:11:40 - Mayor Norris says he thinks the task force did exactly what he wanted to do
- 1:17:20 - Slutzky explains why he is interested in knowing more about dredging as a separate issue
- 1:19:00 - ACSA Chair Don Wagner asks if anyone has any objections to the first five recommendations
- 1:20:10 - Rooker makes comments about the possibility of regulatory approval for other water supply options
- 1:23:30 - Norris agrees with first five recommendations
- 1:28:20 - Brown asks Thomas a question about how additional capacity would be created by full dredging
- 1:30:46 - Rooker clarifies why legal advice on wetlands is necessary
- 1:38:50 - Councilor Brown says Council's concern is based on public perceptions of plan
- 1:42:20 - Wagner asks Brown how that matches up with his earlier statement about who should pay for studies
- 1:45:18 - Norris explains how the other ongoing studies will be complete once a full feasibility study is conducted
- 1:47:48 - Slutzky asks if Council would support adopting recommendations with a modification to first one
- 1:49:50 - Palmer expresses concern that dredging for 50 years still won't be enough
- 1:51:50 - Frederick explains how the assumptions that went into RWSA's figures for dredging
- 1:55:30 - Norris asks Frederick how often bathymetric studies are conducted
- 1:57:30 - Slutzky asks Norris exactly what the City wants to do
- 1:59:45 - Rooker asks if the four Boards can approve the first 5 recommendations
- 2:00:50 - Huja reminded the four Boards of the RFP already drawn up for the RWSA's consideration
- 2:03:50 - Brown suggests amendments to the sixth bullet of recommendations
- 2:07:15 - Palmer raises concerns about securing a firm cost for disposal sites
- 2:09:30 - Slutzky explains the importance of checking the regulatory obstacles before conducting full study
- 2:10:30 - Huja reaffirms his support for the adopted plan - but wants more answers
- 2:11:30 - Norris asks Frederick about the RFP prepared for the RWSA in the summer of 2008
- 2:14:10 - Palmer asks Council for more information for their support on the adopted plan
- 2:16:30 - Slutzky suggests four Boards agree to five recommendations, and recommends City Council reviews RFP for dredging
- 2:18:30 - Discussion of who would pay for dredging studies; ACSA's Wagner said
- 2:19:40 - Thomas says she wants to make sure the meeting ends with a firm consensus
- 2:20:20 - Rooker makes a motion to adopt the first five items, with the amendment to the first one
- 2:21:30 - Rooker makes his motion again
- 2:24:00 - Board of Supervisors adopts motion
- 2:25:00 - Huja expresses concern about voting for the motion today
- 2:26:12 - ACSA Board Member John Martin asks for restatement of City's motion
- 2:27:30 - City Council adopts motion
- 2:27:35 - ACSA adopts motion
- 2:27:45 - RWSA adopts motion
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