Water update: Earth-moving decisions

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Last week, City Councilor Kristin Szakos broke a 2-2 vote on one of the most contentious elements of the $143 million water supply plan, which was first approved in 2006.

In a 3-2 vote, City Council supported the replacement of the existing Lower Ragged Mountain Dam (pictured) with a new earthen structure composed of materials excavated on site. The new dam, which carries an estimated construction cost of $15.9 million to $19.5 million, could be finished in the next two years.

“The only reason I would support a 30′ concrete dam is if it would help unify council going forward,” she said before signaling her preference for a new, earthen dam at the Ragged Mountain Reservoir. “And I think it won’t.” Now, while a united council won’t move forward, Schnabel Engineering’s earthen dam design will.

Albemarle County water officials favored Schnabel’s design to replace the existing Lower Ragged Mountain Dam, and authorized a final design in October. Construction costs for Schnabel’s earthen design range from $15.9 million to $19.5 million. In a recent letter to the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation, Rivanna Water & Sewer Authority (RWSA) Executive Director Tom Frederick wrote that Schnabel was on schedule to meet its April 30 final design deadline. Construction could begin before the year’s end, and may last from 18 to 24 months.

In January, three City Councilors—Szakos, along with David Brown and Satyendra Huja—voted to increase an initial Ragged Mountain Reservoir raise to 30′ from 13′. Late last Tuesday evening, the same three voted to back a new earthen dam at the site. Brown, recently appointed to the RWSA Board of Directors, said that endorsing a concrete dam could “[throw] a monkey wrench into the process and perhaps [derail] city and county working together on a dam.”

Mayor Dave Norris spoke in favor of Black & Veatch’s concrete dam design, and said an earthen dam “will result in substantially greater tree loss.” A concrete dam would permanently disturb an estimated 95 acres, counting the reservoir, and require the excavation of 64,500 cubic yards of rock and soil. The earthen dam, composed of on-site materials, would disturb an estimated 108 acres and require 10 times the excavation volume.

With the earthen dam design supported by a divided City Council, the RWSA Board of Directors also approved the design and more than $80,000 in funds for associated studies and an emergency action plan, also to be designed by Schnabel. The design agreement and 30′ reservoir raise allows Frederick to move ahead on modifying dam permits first approved by the Department of Environmental Quality and the Army Corps of Engineers in 2008. In addition to the final height of the new dam, the city and county still need to agree on cost allocations for the reservoir expansion.

The RWSA also issued a request for proposals to conduct a new regional water demand analysis, as required by the state Department of Environmental Quality. Last week, city resident Rebecca Quinn told the RWSA board that she was “glad this is finally going to happen,” and asked the RWSA to “set up a citizens committee to ensure transparency throughout the study.”

“The committee should have both City and County citizens, and citizens who are on both sides of the issue,” said Quinn. “This would go far towards all of us knowing what goes into the analysis and having a greater understanding about what comes out of it.”

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