Councilors raise questions about water cost-share agreement
By Sean Tubbs
Friday, January 6, 2012
The two members of the Charlottesville City Council opposed to the construction of a new dam at the Ragged Mountain Reservoir asked several questions this week about an agreement that specifies how Charlottesville and Albemarle County will share its cost.
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“I want to make sure that what we’re doing in 2012 is in compliance with both state law and our owncity charter,” Councilor Dave Norris said.
The council will hold a public hearing on Jan. 17 for two documents that must be approved before a $21.5 million contract can be awarded to Thalle Construction to build a new earthen dam.
One is a property use agreement between the city and the Rivanna Water & Sewer Authority that gives permission for the new dam to be built. The city owns the land on which the Ragged Mountain, Sugar Hollow and South Fork Rivanna Reservoirs were built.
The other document is a cost share allocation agreement between the city and the Albemarle County Service Authority that states the city will pay 15 percent of the costs of a new dam, and 20 percent for a new pipeline to connect the Ragged Mountain Reservoir and the South Fork Rivanna Reservoir.
The ACSA will pay for the majority of both projects and will also pay $765,000 to compensate the city for land that will be flooded when the reservoir is expanded.
The agreement states that when both projects are complete, the county will be allocated roughly two-thirds of the 18.7 million gallons a day that can safely be withdrawn from the urban reservoir system to ensure the community has enough water to withstand a drought.
If either locality exceeds its allocation on an average annual basis, it will be required to reimburse the other with a “true-up” payment. Councilor Dede Smith, a co-founder of Citizens for a Sustainable Water Plan, said the agreement creates financial risk for the city.
“If we commit to this agreement and we go over 6.71 million gallons per day and we don’t have more options to get more water in order to increase our allocation, we’re committed to buying the new water,” Smith said.
“We have the rights to that water, so we will essentially be paying to use our water,” Smith added.
However, City Attorney Craig Brown said that has been the case ever since the city, county and the Albemarle County Service Authority entered into a four-party agreement with the RWSA.
“The city owns the water rights [but] in 1973, the city agreed to lease those water rights to Rivanna, ”Brown said. “That was consummated by a deed and bill of sale in 1983 and this [cost-share] agreement follows the same basic structure where the city retains ownership but leases those water rights to Rivanna.”
A similar agreement exists between Albemarle County and the RWSA for the lease of reservoirs that serve Crozet and Scottsville.
Councilor Kristin Szakos, a supporter of the water plan, said she disagreed with Smith that the city was losing anything.
“When we talk about allocation and rights to the water, it’s been clarified that it’s not about the rights to the water; it’s about how much we pay for each gallon of that water,” Szakos said. “We have a right to that water, as does the county.”
Eventually Mayor Satyendra Huja cut off debate, reminding council the agreement can be discussed further after the public hearing.
“I think your concerns are understood [and] I think you will have a chance to vote on it next time,” Huja said.
Ridge Schuyler, formerly with the Nature Conservancy where he helped envision the water plan, said he thought the city had received a good deal.
“You all have done… much better than that only paying for 15 percent of the dam and 20 percent of the pipeline,” Schuyler said. “What that gets city residents is enough water storage to get us through droughts while restoring water to our rivers for the next 30 years.”
By contrast, in 2003, Charlottesville and the ACSA negotiated a cost-share allocation for a project to add capacity at the South Fork Rivanna Reservoir in which the city would pay 27 percent and the county would pay 73 percent.
While that project was never built, the RWSA has used those same percentages when charging the city and the ACSA for costs associated with developing the adopted water supply plan.