This time last year, opponents of the new earthen dam at the Ragged Mountain Reservoir were hoping that a pending lawsuit would stall the long-debated project. Now, after thousands of hardwood trees were wiped out and the water level was lowered for construction, the barren, canyon-like dam site is bustling with engineers and machinery, and officials say the dam is on track to be completed by March 2014.
City Councilor Dede Smith has been publicly opposed to the project from the beginning, and said she’s heartbroken by the environmental damage. After a visit to the site, Smith said listening to a bird in her yard recently took her mind immediately to the acres of woodland habitat that were destroyed for the project.
“As a vocal opponent, I think it was beneficial for me to see it,” she said. “If I didn’t, I could only imagine the horror.”
Controversy over the project began years ago, when the city and county began discussing a cost-sharing agreement and water supply plan. The original plan that City Council unanimously adopted in 2010 involved a phased construction of the lower Ragged Mountain Dam and maintenance dredging of the South Fork Reservoir. But shortly before construction, the Rivanna Water and Sewer Authority (RWSA) came back with plans to raise the reservoir by 30′, construct a new 135′ dam, and install a 9.5-mile pipeline to fill the reservoir. Opponents were furious that the more environmentally friendly option of dredging was off the table, and said the RWSA’s new plan was unnecessary.
Smith formed Citizens for a Sustainable Water Plan in 2007, a group that promoted an alternative plan for the dam, and has been quiet since last year’s failed lawsuit. The organization claims that the RWSA’s plan is oversized due to a drop in water use, is overpriced and will result in skyrocketing water bills, is unsustainable, and destroys an alarming amount of forestland and wildlife.
The Piedmont Group of the Sierra Club have publicly opposed construction of a new dam, but its views were trumped by those of The Piedmont Environmental Council, Southern Environmental Law Center, Rivanna Conservation Society, and the Nature Conservancy, all of whom supported the RWSA’s plan.*
Now that the project is underway, Smith said a lot of her original concerns remain, and she’s not convinced that it was a worthwhile investment. She said the thousands of trees sold for lumber, for example, were not only an environmental loss, but a financial one.
“The city owned those trees, but didn’t get any of the revenue,” she said.
But according to RWSA officials, the lumber’s revenue was lumped into the contractor’s cost, lowering the bid and saving the city money on the project.
RWSA Executive Director Tom Frederick said the project’s environmental mitigations, a task completed by the contractor, are almost finished.
“We see this project having a significant environmental benefit in many ways,” Frederick said. “The mitigation is actually greater than the impact, so the net is a positive benefit to the environment.”
The mitigations include 75,000 linear feet of stream conservation and “extensive tree planting” along Buck Mountain Creek and its tributaries, and a new wetland preservation off South Franklin Street. The project will also enhance and relieve stream flows from existing dams, he said, and continue to maintain adequate water for the community.
The RWSA received permits from the Department of Environmental Quality and the Army Corps of Engineers under the federal Clean Water Act to expand the reservoir, and the two agencies oversee the environmental impact of the project.
The old Ragged Mountain Dam, tucked away off Fontaine Avenue Extended next to Camp Holiday Trails, will be underwater by the time the project is finished, as the water level will be 30′ higher than the current maximum of 641′. The graded, earthen dam will utilize roughly 595,000 cubic yards of soil, and will be constructed of compact dirt and red clay taken from on-site borrow areas. The borrow areas have been cleared of their forestation, and will be underwater when the new pool level of 671′ is obtained.
RWSA Project Manager Doug March said using on-site clay not only clears the land needed to expand the size of the reservoir, but keeps material costs low and prevents excess traffic on the narrow, windy dirt road to the construction site. Rock dug from the earth will also be used for other parts of the project, including making concrete.
“We try to bring in only what we have to,” March said.
Right now, the site of the dam is essentially a giant hole in the ground surrounded by mounds of red clay. The project began late last April, and March said con-
struction of the dam won’t actually start until this summer. Workers will soon remove the 100-year-old pipes running through the cross section of the worksite, and insert new pipes underground going around the dam to improve its structural integrity and longevity. March said the current pipes are still usable, but they try to avoid building dams on top of other materials, so the new pipeline system will be safer.
Already built is the new intake river tower, a concrete structure on the west side of the dam that will control reservoir pool levels and convey normal flows during rainstorms. March said the currently gray, unmanned tower will be stained brown to give it character and an old-timey feel, which is part of an attempt to make the entire area more aesthetically pleasing.
The natural area surrounding the construction site is known for the seven-mile trail system that’s been available for hiking and biking since 1999. The recreation space is closed to the public until construction is complete next year, and March said roughly 25 percent of the trails will be underwater by the time the reservoir is at capacity. In the meantime, the city’s Parks and Recreation Department will partner with the Ivy Creek Foundation and groups of local volunteers to blaze new sections of the trails above the 671′ pool elevation.
Until the 9.5-mile pipeline is installed —sometime between now and 2030, Frederick said—the reservoir will be fed by a pipeline from Sugar Hollow, and the amount of time it takes to fill will depend on weather conditions over the next couple years.
Frederick has heard from opponents of the project since the RWSA began discussing alternatives nearly 10 years ago, but he said with population growth and water use forecasts, it’s in everybody’s best interest.
“We believe this project has great potential to be a long-term solution to this community, providing for the needs of humans, and protection of the environment,” he said.
* Correction: The original version of this story, and the one that ran in print on March 5, incorrectly stated that the Rivanna River Basin Commission spoke up in favor of the dam. In fact, the RRBC took no public position on the issue.