Cost estimate for earthen dam drops significantly; officials take no action at joint meeting
By Brian Wheeler
Tuesday, January 18, 2011
Local officials received information Tuesday indicating that the cost estimate for a new earthen dam proposed for the Ragged Mountain Reservoir has dropped significantly. However, the stalemate on a long-term community water supply plan continues, despite an almost two-hour joint meeting between the Albemarle County Board of Supervisors and Charlottesville’s City Council.
The meeting was held at the request of Albemarle officials to try to resolve the design and height of the new dam, a key component of the 50-year water supply plan.
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Supervisor Ann H. Mallek said she was encouraged by the exchange of information.
“I think people shared their questions and learned some things they didn’t already know,” Mallek said in an interview. “Every day I learn something new that leads me to support the earthen dam even more.”
Charlottesville Mayor Dave Norris said after the meeting that he felt there were still critical information gaps and trust issues to be resolved before the two localities could reach agreement.
“I was pleased at the tone of the discussion,” Norris said. “However, there are clear trust issues. I think a lot of what is underlying all of this is a lack of trust.”
“I also think there is an information gap between the city and the county,” Norris added. “The city’s preferred approach is phasing in the construction of the dam, but the county has never received the report from Black & Veatch. I was pleased to hear the request that they come make that presentation to the county.”
The City Council was told by Black & Veatch earlier this month that the first phase of a concrete dam extension could be built for between $10.9 million and $15.5 million to raise the reservoir by 13 feet, but with a base that could support up to 45 feet. Including other cost factors if the dam is built to its full height, the total cost of the phased concrete dam would be $24.6 million to $29.2 million, based on the preliminary design concept.
Meanwhile, the county continues to prefer the construction of an all-new earthen dam, which it says has more certain costs, because 60 percent of the final engineering is already completed. Supervisors also said Tuesday that the earthen dam was a complete solution to the community’s water needs and is more environmentally responsible.
Thomas L. Frederick Jr., executive director of the Rivanna Water & Sewer Authority, said 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 Engineering’s original estimates.
When the earthen dam proposal was first introduced in May 2010, Schnabel estimated its cost at between $20 million and $27 million. Including other project expenses, Frederick told the joint boards that from this point forward the earthen dam would cost between $24.8 million to $28.4 million to build.
While the overall cost estimates for the competing approaches to a new dam are now virtually the same, neither side indicated a willingness to back away from its preferred alternative.
Supervisor Dennis S. Rooker said the cost of dredging the South Fork Rivanna Reservoir, when combined with the city’s approach on the dam, made their plan more expensive for a smaller water supply. He repeatedly asked why the community would want to build on top of a dam built in 1908 when it could build a brand-new one.
“Assuming the cost comes in somewhat reasonably close, why would you build on top of an existing dam that is a hundred and some years old when you have an option of building a new dam,” Rooker asked.
Norris responded that Black & Veatch had found the old Ragged Mountain dam to be in much better shape than expected and that their approach allowed the phasing of the dam’s construction, limiting the initial costs.
“The main difference, which I think is a critical difference, is the fact that you can’t phase in a new earthen dam,” Norris said. “Utilizing the existing dam … you can add 13 feet as an initial rise, then eventually … you can build more at a relative modest additional cost. That saves you a tremendous amount of money today for today’s ratepayers.”
Councilor David Brown joined Mallek in asking the group to identify the advantages of the city’s approach, besides saving trees, versus building a new dam all at once.
“If costs are taken off the table, what’s the advantage of phasing?” Brown asked after the meeting. “There is a difference of opinion on the costs, and we have gotten into an area where there is not a clear and easy answer on the approach to be taken.”
Rooker discussed a recent letter from the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality that he said raised doubts about whether DEQ would respond to other proposals. He said the city’s approach of dredging plus a phased concrete dam would have to be submitted as a major permit amendment, a process he said could set the water plan back 18 to 24 months.
DEQ Director David K. Paylor said in the Jan. 7 letter that his agency wants the chairs of the “four boards” with authority over the local water and sewer system to work locally to resolve its differences.
Paylor’s letter indicates that the agency will respond to a new permit request if it is submitted by the Rivanna Water & Sewer Authority with the approval of the four boards. The letter does not explicitly address whether the agency will respond to other questions submitted by local officials last October. The City Council had hoped DEQ would respond to a number of unanswered questions about their phased approach.
“The position DEQ is in, we do not want to speculate on various possibilities, which is what we are getting lots of questions about,” said Bill Haden, DEQ’s director of public affairs, in an interview. “DEQ does answer questions from permit applicants before they submit. ... In the context of preparations for a revised application, DEQ would respond to questions.”
Mallek emphasized at the beginning of the meeting and afterwards that the discussion was intended to be an opportunity to share information, not a meeting to “push people into a corner” to make decisions.
“I am trying to hold my breath and give City Council a chance to have some follow-up and decide some things,” she said.
Norris said he hoped that new cost estimates would soon be available on dredging and that a compromise could be reached that allowed a phased concrete dam. He highlighted a proposal for mandatory triggers on the dam’s second phase that was suggested by former Albemarle County Service Authority board member John Martin.
“The county doesn’t trust the city to follow through on a phased approach, where if they need the additional water, we will authorize it 30 or 40 years from now,” Norris said after the meeting. “I thought the suggestion that John Martin made about an automatic trigger could be that breakthrough that brings the parties together.”
At its meeting Tuesday night, the City Council voted 3-2, with Norris and Holly Edwards voting against, to increase the height of the reservoir by 30 feet in the first phase of any enlarged dam’s construction. This changes the 13-foot height specified in the council’s September resolution for its water plan alternative. The council did not specify the type of dam to be built, and it continues to want a foundation large enough to support future expansions.
Next, the Albemarle supervisors are expected to hear a report from the city’s consultants, Black & Veatch, on the concrete dam approach. That presentation has not been scheduled. The RWSA board has its next meeting Jan 25.
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