Perhaps nothing this century has shaken the Charlottesville area more than the drought of 2002, when carwashes closed, restaurants served on paper plates and the water supply was within 60 days of running out.
And perhaps nothing has divided the community more than the multi-year battle waged over the plan to build a 129-foot-tall mega-dam at Ragged Mountain that would be filled with a nine-mile pipeline from the silting-up South Fork Rivanna Reservoir, from which most of the area’s water still comes.
Today, the pipeline is unbuilt and the South Fork is still filling with sediment, but the new $38 million dam at Ragged Mountain is complete and the reservoir is full, holding 1.5 billion gallons of water.
Champions of the Ragged plan gathered at the new dam on a rainy May 5 to toast the bounty of fresh water and celebrate National Drinking Water Week. Mike Gaffney, chair of the Rivanna Water & Sewer Authority, noted the “herculean effort” to get the dam approved and built, construction of which started in 2012 and was completed in 2014.
Former RWSA executive director Tom Frederick, who led the dam construction effort after a plan to pull water from the James River was rejected and who just finished his tenure here to take a new job in Loudoun County, recalled the community’s fear of drought—and fear of clear cutting and destruction of habitat in the natural area around the reservoir.
“We’re putting to rest permanently the notion this would be an environmental wreck,” said Frederick. “We recognize and prove we as humans can live together with nature.”
Albemarle Board of Supervisors Chair Liz Palmer was on the Albemarle County Service Authority Board when the debate raged, and she noted that the new dam “was only part of the plan.” Palmer listed aging infrastructure—both the 1920s-built pipeline from Sugar Hollow reservoir used to fill Ragged Mountain and the Observatory Hill Water Treatment Plant, which processes water from the Ragged reservoir, are “antiquated,” she said.
Once the pipeline is built from South Fork Rivanna for water storage at Ragged Mountain, during times of drought, the pipe will be able to “gravity feed” back down to the South Fork, which has the largest water treatment plant, she said. That offers redundancy and “we don’t have to build a new treatment plant,” said Palmer.
The unbuilt pipeline is still the rub for those who fell into the camp that favored dredging the Rivanna rather than investing in the new dam. “It was a ridiculous idea to begin with,” says former city councilor Dede Smith, who founded a group called Citizens for a Sustainable Water Plan. “It was $100 million of a $140 million project.”
“I haven’t seen any acquisitions of rights of way” to build the pipeline, says former vice-mayor Kevin Lynch, who also opposed the Ragged Mountain plan. “Most people are still getting water from the South Fork and nothing’s been done to that.”
The good news, Lynch adds, is the South Fork reservoir is silting up more slowly than it had in previous decades. “We’re good at building new stuff and not so good at maintenance,” he says.
“We’re going to get that pipeline built,” assures Gaffney.
“It’s in the capital improvement plan,” says Frederick.
The water level of the Sugar Hollow reservoir has been a concern for both supporters and opponents of the new dam. Between filling up Ragged Mountain and downstream releases of water into the Moormans River, which flows into Sugar Hollow, while other reservoirs have water overflowing their spillways, Sugar Hollow was nearly 14 feet below level April 30, according to a RWSA daily report.
“Sugar Hollow went down precipitously last summer, and it went down this spring,” says John Martin with Friends of the Moormans, a group that supported the Ragged Mountain Dam because that plan would allow larger releases from Sugar Hollow into the Moormans River.
The plan, modeled on the flow of the Mechums River, called for releases of 10 million gallons a day from Sugar Hollow into the Moormans. “The concern is that formula may be overstating the amount of water to be released,” says Martin. “Too much water is going out and not enough is coming in.”
RWSA has asked the Department of Environmental Quality to temporarily lower its releases to 5 million gallons a day.
Those “minor corrections” are something one learns during the process, says Frederick. He expects Sugar Hollow levels to fluctuate for a period of time, but ultimately the reservoir will fill up again.
Despite low water levels in Sugar Hollow, Martin says water flow in the Moormans is “tremendously improved” from before, when it would dry up every summer.
That’s what it’s always done, counter Lynch and Smith, who call the Moormans a “flashy” river—one that gets really high flows when it rains and low flows when it doesn’t.
Using the Moormans River and Sugar Hollow with its 17.5 square miles of drainage area is “not sustainable in the long term for this community,” says Palmer. She says that’s why the nine-mile pipeline from the South Fork Rivanna’s 260-square-mile watershed is needed. While the South Fork is good for collecting water, it’s not good for storage, but Ragged Mountain, a natural bowl, is, she points out.
Once the pipeline is built, she adds, the Sugar Hollow pipeline will be abandoned. But for now, Sugar Hollow remains Ragged Mountain’s lifeline.
With the rain coming down and the reservoir full, those there last week clinked their plastic cups and toasted clean water—1.5 billion gallons of it.