Leaky-gate: RWSA employee resigns in protest

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By the time this photo was taken in February, the South Fork Rivanna Reservoir was full again. Photo by Skycladap By the time this photo was taken in February, the South Fork Rivanna Reservoir was full again. Photo by Skycladap

Remember last fall’s mandatory water restrictions? An employee who recently resigned from the Rivanna Water & Sewer Authority says the agency is blaming an alleged drought for the loss of several hundred million gallons of water from the South Fork Rivanna Reservoir, when two leaky gates were the culprit.

“The dry weather did not cause the drop in water level, it merely allowed RWSA’s mismanagement of the reservoir to have a visible and adverse effect,” says Rich Gullick, the authority’s former director of operations, who quit the job he held for more than three years in February in protest of what he calls a “misinformation campaign” that advocates the need for an $82 million pipeline.

He spoke during the public comment session of RWSA’s June 26 board of directors meeting, where he said, “Rivanna has a history of trying to solve problems that aren’t actually problems, while at the same time leaving other problems unidentified or unaddressed.”

When the South Fork Rivanna Reservoir lost 513 million gallons of water and dropped down to 42 percent of its capacity last October, Gullick says the RWSA plugged the leaky gates with cat litter and garden mulch, attributed the loss of water to the drought and imposed mandatory water restrictions.

“Without the gates leaking, the reservoir probably would have stayed full,” says Gullick, whose name is often followed by a long list of degrees and licenses, including a Ph.D. in environmental engineering from the University of Michigan. “The mandatory water restrictions should have been unnecessary.”

An October 5 press release titled “RWSA declares drought warning” said the mandatory water restrictions were being implemented “due to the rapid loss of water storage at the South Fork Rivanna Reservoir,” but did not mention the leaky gates.

RWSA Executive Director Bill Mawyer says his crew publicly acknowledged the leakage from the gates, including at the October 24 public board meeting.

“We’ve been very upfront,” he says. “We told our board that we had two leaking gates that had been leaking about 3 million gallons a day, but they only contributed about a third of the loss of water from the reservoir.”

Gullick refutes that claim, and says that number looked more like 17 million gallons a day at the end of September. He adds that RWSA’s own data proves the leaks were the primary cause of the abnormally low water levels.

“RWSA was slow to respond to the rapid drop in water level, despite repeated warnings in September from the water department manager who works onsite at the South Rivanna water treatment plant,” says Gullick. When employees looked more closely in October, they learned that about 10 million gallons of water loss each day couldn’t be accounted for, and then remembered that two of the South Fork Rivanna Reservoir’s dam gate valves had substantial leaks, according to Gullick.

A visual inspection showed “gushing water,” he says, and the rapid drop in water level stopped as soon as the leaks were plugged October 4, even though the inflow was still very low. The level stayed steady for four days until it rained on October 8.

Rich Gullick. Courtesy photo

“Clearly, the leaking gates were the cause of the problem,” he says.

Mawyer says the state’s broken water gauge was overreporting the amount of water flowing into the reservoir, and because they’re required to release 70 percent of the natural inflow at the South Fork Rivanna Reservoir, they were also over releasing it. To help restore the water level, the Department of Environmental Quality approved RWSA’s request to temporarily amend its permit to release only 10 percent of inflow, but required the city and county to enforce the water restrictions.

“The reduction in required downstream releases was not what stopped the decrease in water level,” says Gullick, adding that it was helpful, though not necessary, and saved 252 million gallons.

Folks at the RWSA and its board of directors have used the severe loss of water last fall to advocate for an $82 million pipeline to connect the South Fork Rivanna and Ragged Mountain reservoirs, so water can be stored and shared between the two, says Gullick. They’ve said the pipeline, which was included in a controversial community water supply plan approved in 2012, could have prevented the need for the mandatory water restrictions.

“This has as much relevancy as building a pipeline from Lake Ontario to Charlottesville, as there is absolutely no connection,” says the former employee.

Though construction on the pipeline is expected to begin in about a decade, Gullick says it won’t be needed until at least 2048—or 2062, if the Ragged Mountain water level is raised an additional 12 feet first, as he’s suggesting and is also part of the plan—because the actual water demand has been far less than what the RWSA projected.

“Those projected growth rates are totally unrealistic,” he says, and adds that they were based on the rapidly growing demand of the ’80s and ’90s, which he says has decreased significantly since then.

“By presenting a plethora of misleading and false information and then not correcting it, Rivanna has been covering up from the public the true facts about the lack of need for the pipeline,” Gullick said to the board of directors. “At what point does this deception become considered a conspiracy? Or malfeasance?”

Mawyer says he was “somewhat” expecting the former employee to speak at the June meeting. “As Rich said, he worked here, and we’re aware of some of his views about the project, so we weren’t totally caught by surprise.”

The executive director says the authority will soon start a year-long study to reevaluate the community’s demand for water, and he plans to respond to Gullick’s public comments at the board’s July 24 meeting.

Added Gullick in his presentation, “This is not leading the community, it’s misleading the community.”

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