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October 27, 2010

Former water official calls for shut down of Ragged Mountain Reservoir for safety reasons

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DailyProgressBy Brian Wheeler
Charlottesville Tomorrow
Wednesday, October 27, 2010

20101026.Martin
Former ACSA board member John Martin

A former board member of Albemarle County’s water authority is calling for state officials to shut down the Ragged Mountain Reservoir for safety reasons if Charlottesville and Albemarle do not quickly agree to a water plan.

As a result, another state agency is being asked to resolve the community’s water supply debate.

John Martin resigned last month from the Albemarle County Service Authority board of directors, saying he intended to “vigorously defend” the 50-year community water supply plan. On Tuesday, he sent a letter to the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation calling for some dam operating permits to be revoked, a tactic he hopes will renew the city’s support for the water plan originally approved in 2006.

Download Download Martin's letter to DCR

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“The behavior of this community with respect to the differences on the water supply plan are both unfortunate and inexcusable,” Martin told board members of the Rivanna Water & Sewer Authority at their meeting Tuesday. “There is no reason … why DCR should be further patient with us to get our act together and delay needed safety improvements at the Ragged Mountain reservoirs which are endangering lives.”

Later in the meeting, Charlottesville Mayor Dave Norris said he favored asking the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality to come to Charlottesville and facilitate a final compromise between “squabbling children.” Norris specifically wants the DEQ to provide feedback on a compromise water plan adopted by the City Council but opposed by Albemarle County.

“How do we get Rivanna, i.e. all of us, on the same page, and it may not be possible, about the best path forward?” Norris asked. “So that we can address these dam safety issues, so that we can address the water supply … and not squabble about this for many more months or years to come.”

In response to Martin’s comments, Betty Mooney, representing Citizens for a Sustainable Water Plan, called for the existing Lower Ragged Mountain Dam to be repaired immediately. Mooney opposes the 2006 water plan, which calls for a new, taller dam to be built all at once.

“I would say go ahead now, finally, and just do the repair, you’ve got the money,” Mooney said. “The only thing you need to do now is repair that [dam’s] spillway and it makes sense to do it.”

Martin’s letter asks that the renewal of the dams’ operating permits be denied when they are heard by the Virginia Soil and Water Conservation Board, which is scheduled to meet Nov. 18.

The permits have been renewed on a regular basis since 1978, when state officials first identified safety concerns in the dams’ designs. The current permits are set to expire November 30.

In an interview, Martin said he hoped the city would see that “the state holds some cards too” in the water dispute, because without the permits Ragged Mountain would have to be removed from service for the urban water supply.

“The only way to protect the dam is to get the water out of it,” Martin said. “The next 23 days are critically important. Nobody wants to see our reservoir drained.”

The RWSA received a six-month extension on the permits last May after receiving an update on the water plan’s implementation schedule. Thomas L. Frederick, the RWSA’s executive director, said Tuesday that planning for a new dam was tracking about a month behind the schedule he shared with state officials.

The City Council has since voted to pursue an alternative water plan, which seeks phased construction of a new dam. Without agreement on a final dam design, the remainder of the water plan is at risk of falling further behind schedule.

Martin’s letter is addressed to Steve Snell, a state dam safety engineer. Snell recently informed RWSA staff that he was concerned to hear city officials had concluded the existing dam was safe.

“[Officials] have repeatedly stated that the Lower Ragged Mountain Dam is inadequate, with the Federal Government judging the dam ‘seriously inadequate,’” Snell wrote in an e-mail to the RWSA in July. “ In no circumstances should this be interpreted as indicating that the dam is ‘safe’. I feel it would be incorrect for RWSA, as stewards of the dam, to represent the dam as ‘safe’ in any communication to its Board or to the public.”

Gary O’Connell, the ACSA’s executive director, asked Frederick if he had ever heard of a dam permit not getting renewed.

“It’s always hard to put yourself in the mind of other board members, especially when you have a changing governor and changes in people who are on [the Soil and Water Conservation Board],” Frederick responded. “Obviously we have gone to them requesting extensions several times and they have granted each of our requests to date.”

“If they deny the extension, it puts us in a very difficult position,” Norris said. “The easiest and quickest way to resolve the matter … is to go in and fix the spillway, and spend millions of dollars to do that, which I think all of us would agree would be a really unfortunate outcome because it hinders our ability to proceed with any other options.”

The next meeting of the RWSA board is scheduled for Nov. 23.

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