It’s been three years since the Charlottesville City Council and Albemarle County Service Authority agreed on a plan to build the Ragged Mountain Dam and dredge the South Fork Rivanna Reservoir. Construction of the dam is well underway, but a scrapped contract has stalled the dredging project, and officials now say it may be time to reevaluate whether dredging is still a good idea.
The water supply plan was a hugely contentious issue for years, and opponents of the dam, led by City Councilor Dede Smith, pushed a design that would only include dredging. The 2010 agreement between the city, county, and Rivanna Water and Sewer Authority revealed a multistage plan for dam construction and $3.5 million in capital improvement funds set aside to dredge the reservoir; at the time of the agreement, some people wondered why both were necessary.
Smith, a vocal opponent of the Ragged Mountain Dam who began a pro-dredging campaign in 2007, said she doesn’t understand why the dredging project would move forward now that the dam construction is underway.
“South Fork just doesn’t contribute much to the water storage,” she said. “Why would Rivanna pay at all for dredging if it’s not needed for the water supply?”
Three companies submitted conceptual proposals to the RWSA in 2012, and Texas-based Orion Marine Group was selected to pursue a contract for the dredging project. The RWSA’s request for proposal required contractors to negotiate with local landowners and find a property suited for processing and disposal of the dredged material, and Orion’s original plan was to use land at Albemarle County’s Panorama Farms. The RWSA budgeted $3.5 million of ratepayer money for the project, but Orion’s negotiation with landowners revealed that paying for the land alone would cost upwards of $3.1 million, which wouldn’t leave enough money for the dredging itself. An August 12 letter to the RWSA announced that Orion “must decline the invitation” to pursue the project.
Without a proposal on the table, the sewer authority is back to the drawing board, and some politicians and members of the public say it’s time to pull the plug on the project.
At the last City Council meeting in September, Councilor Dave Norris suggested that the money intended for dredging be redirected to another long-discussed sewer authority issue: mitigating the odor that wafts from the wastewater treatment plant to the Woolen Mills neighborhood. Councilors agreed to allow for public comment before making a recommendation to the RWSA board.
Albemarle County Supervisor and RWSA board member Ken Boyd agrees that dredging the reservoir would be a waste of money, but he’s not in favor of putting the $3.5 million toward a project that benefits city residents only.
“If we’re going to decide that dredging is not necessary, we ought to put the money into other capital projects,” Boyd said, adding that half of that $3.5 million would technically come out of county ratepayers’ pockets.
Boyd said he never understood why the project was approved in the first place.
“I personally never thought the dredging was an important aspect of our water supply plan,” he said. “If we do any dredging, it’s going to be for recreational and aesthetic purposes.”
UVA rowing coach Kevin Sauer disagrees. As someone who’s lived in the county for 25 years and spent nearly every day on the water, Sauer’s been a dredging advocate since the discussion began years ago. The water level has dropped at least three feet since he began running practices at the reservoir, he said, and overgrown islands resulting from years of silt buildup make it difficult for the team’s boats to get through the area. All that aside, Sauer said he’s concerned that the inevitable silting will continue to accumulate to the point where it will be difficult to pump water into the Ragged Mountain Reservoir.
“I don’t understand why we would allow this tremendous resource to completely silt in just because it’s not the primary water source,” he said.
RWSA director Tom Frederick said he empathizes with recreational users, and private funding from local stakeholders like rowers or fishermen could change the game.
Meanwhile, Frederick said the RWSA board is awaiting the results of an appeal filed by Blue Ridge Sand, a southwest Virginia company whose dredging proposal was rejected last year due to missing information. Frederick said the results of the pending appeal will be factored into the board’s decision about the project, and right now, all options are on the table.
At last week’s RWSA board of directors meeting, members agreed to let the public and local governing bodies weigh in before abandoning the dredging plan. Frederick said dredging the reservoir would still have “multiple potential benefits,” especially for recreational purposes, but whether or not those benefits outweigh the costs to city and county ratepayers is still up in the air.
“Are those benefits appropriate for the public to continue to support through taxes and rates? Or do the costs outweigh the benefits?” Frederick said.