Leaky-gate, part 2: RWSA responds to cover-up accusations

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The Rivanna Water and Sewer Authority declared a drought and imposed mandatory water restrictions when the South Fork Rivanna Reservoir, pictured full here, lost millions of gallons of water last fall. Most of that water loss could have been prevented. Photo by Skyclad AERIAL The Rivanna Water and Sewer Authority declared a drought and imposed mandatory water restrictions when the South Fork Rivanna Reservoir, pictured full here, lost millions of gallons of water last fall. Most of that water loss could have been prevented. Photo by Skyclad AERIAL

It was late June when a whistleblower, who recently resigned from the Rivanna Water and Sewer Authority to protest an $80-million water pipeline it wants to build between two reservoirs, went before its board of directors to denounce it.

Rich Gullick, the authority’s former director of operations, handed over several pages of in-depth analysis on why he believes the pipeline isn’t needed, and criticized the authority for attributing millions of gallons of water loss and mandatory water restrictions to a drought last fall, when two leaky gates were the culprit.

A month later, at the board’s July 24 meeting, RWSA Executive Director Bill Mawyer took the chance to respond to Gullick’s comments—in the form of a five-page public letter.

“We’ve always been upfront with that data to anyone and everyone who asked,” Mawyer told the board, adding that Gullick’s use of the words “misinformation, cover-up and conspiracy” were concerning.

Mawyer said the purpose of the pipeline project from the South Fork Rivanna to the Ragged Mountain reservoirs, which was included in a community water supply plan created between 2002 and 2012, is to ensure that the local urban area has an adequate supply of water for the next 50 years, including “during extreme drought conditions” like those in 2002, the worst drought on record, when mandatory water restrictions then included no outside irrigation, closed car washes and restaurants serving food on paper plates.

As for the water supply plan, “This was a well-vetted plan for 10 years,” Mawyer told the board. “This was not a 30-minute discussion someone had at a social event.” He did not mention that the plan was highly controversial then, and even today, many question the need for the pipeline.

Gullick, who has created the website cvillesensiblewaterplan.org for his extensive data on the pipeline, says Mawyer’s five-page response made him queasy.

“It actually churns my stomach to read this many misleading and false statements,” he says. “It sounds good on the surface, I’m sure, to a lot of people, but boy is it not.”

Perhaps his most compelling evidence against the pipeline is that projected demand for water has significantly decreased since the community water supply plan was created.

Local conservation efforts and plumbing improvements have caused a decrease in water demand since 2000, and the demand is now the same as it was in 1985, says Gullick.

The RWSA, however, has recognized this and is currently spearheading a new study to determine water demand, which will be completed in 2020. With current projections, Gullick says the pipeline won’t be needed until at least 2062. Even using the same rate predicted in 2004, the former employee says it will be 2048 before water demand meets the estimated safe yield, which is the maximum withdrawal rate available from the water supply to withstand the worst drought on record.

In Gullick’s original comments to the board, he said this could be met by filling the Ragged Mountain Reservoir its final 12 feet, and building the pipeline later when demand actually increases, but as Mawyer said in his response, “contractually, we cannot do that.”

The RWSA has an agreement with the city and the Albemarle County Service Authority to raise the Ragged Mountain Reservoir its final 12 feet only when demand reaches 85 percent of the water supply, which hasn’t happened, says Mawyer.

However, Gullick points out that at the April 4 board meeting, when Mawyer also said this, board member Liz Palmer corrected him. “If the city and county would like to fill the entire Ragged Mountain Reservoir, we agree, it could start tomorrow,” she said. Responded Mawyer, “True.”

The executive director also said in his response that last fall’s water restrictions were mandated in October “as the result of rapid decline in the [South Fork Rivanna Reservoir] water level from September 17-October 3.”

Gullick says Mawyer “cherry picked” that data.

From September 17 to October 3, the stored volume in the reservoir dropped 260 million gallons, but according to Gullick, nearly 230 million gallons were lost from August 3 to September 17, which was 46 percent of the total 490 million gallon decrease from August 3 to October 3 that the report didn’t mention.

“There was a slightly sharper drop in reservoir level in late September and early October because there was no rain then to help compensate for the leaking gates,” Gullick says. He notes similar periods of no rain from 2014 to 2016, which caused no problem with the reservoir level.

If there’s still any question, Mawyer said those “drought watch conditions” last fall were imposed for something that was “technically not a drought.”

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