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January 19, 2011

City Council votes to increase size of dam in modified water plan

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DailyProgressBy Brian Wheeler
Charlottesville Tomorrow
Wednesday, January 19, 2011
 
A three-vote coalition has formed on the Charlottesville City Council that favors construction of a much larger dam at the Ragged Mountain Reservoir.

Councilors David Brown, Satyendra Huja, and Kristin Szakos all voted Tuesday night to revisit the city’s recommended water plan and support a height increase of the reservoir’s pool by at least 30 feet.

“We’ve been talking about water for some time, and I think we need to come to some conclusions,” Huja said. “It’s not the city alone, it’s the city and county. We can’t make a unilateral decision which everyone will agree to and vice versa.”

The vote puts the city and Albemarle County closer to a compromise that could get the water plan in motion. City and county have been at odds over the plan, which was originally approved in 2006.

County leaders favor a new, earthen dam at Ragged Mountain Reservoir and a new pipeline from the South Fork Rivanna Reservoir to fill the bigger pool. City leaders, led by Mayor Dave Norris, had — until Tuesday night — shown an interest in building a smaller dam in phases on top of the existing dam, while adding dredging at Rivanna to bolster the water supply.

After a two-hour joint meeting earlier Tuesday with the Albemarle County Board of Supervisors, at which the council received news that the county’s preferred earthen dam had dropped in price significantly, a majority of the City Council was prepared to take some action to keep the 2006 water plan moving forward.

“I have agonized about this and lost a lot of sleep,” Szakos said. “I think that given our best guess looking forward … I feel strongly that the likelihood of our needing that [added water capacity] within this next 50 years is high.”

In September, the council unanimously endorsed a water plan heavily promoted by Norris, which would have only raised the reservoir by 13 feet as part of the first phase of a larger dam. Norris has advocated for a smaller reservoir combined with dredging at South Fork.

“I’m disappointed obviously, but that’s democracy,” Norris said.

Councilor Holly Edwards joined Norris in voting against the water plan modification. Largely supporting the mayor’s position has also been Citizens for a Sustainable Water Plan, a group that began in 2007 by raising questions about dredging as a water supply alternative.

“You gave [the county] the 30-foot dam, and what did the city get?” asked Dede Smith, one of the group’s representatives after the vote. “The city got nothing. … Not only have you sold out city resources, you’ve sold out the city people.”

“You have failed us and I am just heartbroken about it,” Smith said.

Brown was the first to suggest the 30-foot height compromise, a point between the city’s previous position and the county’s current preference for a new earthen dam that would raise the pool 42-feet as envisioned in the 2006 plan.

Brown identified costs and stream flows as important issues related to his vote.

“One component is costs,” said Brown. “If we can become clear that the city ratepayers will not be paying for expanding the county’s water supply, that’s what I want to be sure of.”

“It’s important to me that we have enough storage capacity to take the stress off our rivers,” he added. “The more water you can collect and store when water is plentiful, when it is raining, the less you are going to have to be taking away from the rivers when it’s dry.”

Thomas L. Frederick, Jr., executive director of the Rivanna Water & Sewer Authority, told the council in September that the minimum pool height increase that would also accommodate area stream flows was 30 feet.

Schnabel Engineering is now more than halfway finished with the final design of an earthen dam that would raise the reservoir pool by 42 feet. The design is currently being paid for by the Albemarle County Service Authority because the city decided to pay for its own study to renovate and enlarge the old dam. That consultant, Black & Veatch, has not presented the city with cost estimates for a 30-foot raise.

Frederick announced Tuesday that the construction costs alone for the earthen dam had dropped to between $15.9 million and $19.5 million, about 21 percent to 28 percent lower than Schnabel’s original estimates.

The council’s action did not provide further direction on the exact approach for the dam’s construction, a topic expected to be the subject of future joint meetings between the city and county. Brown said in an interview that the intent of his motion was to simply replace “13 feet” with “30 feet” in the council’s September resolution. That means, he said, that the city’s proposed dam would still include a larger foundation that could support a reservoir up to 42 feet taller in the future.

Councilors also discussed a bidding process that is in development related to a project for the South Fork Rivanna Reservoir. Albemarle County has said it would support getting a price on dredging, but only if it was separated from the water plan.

Norris said after the vote that the larger dam would make dredging the South Fork much less attractive financially.

“A 30-foot rise not only discourages more aggressive action on conservation, but I also don’t see an argument for dredging,” Norris said. “It doesn’t make any financial sense to pursue dredging once you add that much capacity. Perhaps you could make an argument that the reservoir should be dredged for recreational purposes for the rowing squads, in which case [the University of Virginia] needs to pay for it.”

The RWSA will discuss dredging and the water plan further at its meeting Jan 25.

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