Carbon copies: Nearly $30 million water filtration system in the works

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No, this is not a new brewery. These 8,900-gallon tanks in Crozet at the water treatment plant provide carbon filtration to the water from Beaver Creek Reservoir, and they’re going in throughout the entire Rivanna water system. Rammelkamp Foto No, this is not a new brewery. These 8,900-gallon tanks in Crozet at the water treatment plant provide carbon filtration to the water from Beaver Creek Reservoir, and they’re going in throughout the entire Rivanna water system. Rammelkamp Foto

Summer of 2012, Charlottesville was rocked by two events that were ultimately reversed because of intense public opposition: the firing of UVA President Teresa Sullivan and a plan to add chloramines to the water supply.

On the latter, in a rare show of unanimity, City Council and the Albemarle Board of Supervisors, along with the area’s two water authorities, voted to halt a previously approved plan to add chloramines to the water supply, and instead opted for granular activated carbon filtration to meet more stringent EPA mandates.

Five years later, giant carbon filtration tanks—they’re called contactors—are being installed in all Rivanna Water and Sewer Authority and Albemarle County Service Authority water treatment plants, and work should be completed by the end of the year.

The chloramine controversy erupted nearly a year after the water authorities had approved the addition of the chlorine/ammonia combo, which was blamed for the off-the-charts elevated lead levels in the early aughts in D.C. homes—and children.

However, chloramines are cheaper and safely used in 76 percent of Virginia’s public water supplies, according to RWSA’s former executive director, and are used in Henrico County, where its current director, Bill Mawyer, previously worked.

Carbon filtration “helps remove organic products from water so when we add chlorine, it doesn’t create disinfectant byproducts,” says Mawyer. It was the byproducts that the EPA was tightening up on, and by filtering, “there’s an incentive to try not to let them form in the first place.”

Rivanna’s largest water treatment plant, South Rivanna, is getting eight of the granular activated carbon contactors, says Mawyer, while Crozet, North Rivanna, Observatory and Scottsville are each getting two, a project that is “close to $30 million,” he says.

Even after the capital investment, filtration will continue to cost an estimated $1 million a year to replace the carbon in the contactors, says Mawyer.

And what about that nine-mile pipeline?

As controversial as chloramines were, that wasn’t the biggest water drama to roil the community. That would be the Ragged Mountain Reservoir mega-dam, which split the community for years into dam supporters and those who favored dredging the silting South Fork Rivanna Reservoir.

Part of the dam plan, which was approved in 2011, included a nine-mile pipeline from the Rivanna reservoir to fill Ragged Mountain, which is now 96 percent full, according to Mawyer, using water piped instead from Sugar Hollow Reservoir.

The nine-mile pipeline plan languished, and Mawyer says the water authority will turn its attention to determining a route and obtaining easements in the next few months. The pipeline will transport water both to and from Ragged Mountain, “uphill both ways,” says Mawyer, and require pump stations at both ends. In 2009, it was estimated to cost $62 million.

Some, like former city councilor Dede Smith, who opposed the Ragged Mountain dam, are dubious. “As for the pipeline, I have contended for a long time now, that it will never be built,” she writes in an email. “The irony is that what we have now is RWSA’s original plan for the Community Water Plan, and that is an expanded Ragged Mountain Reservoir using the clean Moormans River as its source. While the introduction of a South Fork Rivanna pipeline may have brought majority approval to the plan, the pipeline was always unrealistic both in logistics and cost. And in truth, now that the expanded RMR is filled, the original plan is working pretty well…at least for now.”

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