City, RWSA move forward on water studies

Last November, Charlottesville’s City Council passed a resolution calling for a raft of studies related to the community’s 50-year water supply plan. The move came amid continued controversy about the plan that Council and other local bodies adopted in 2006, and followed an announcement that Gannett Fleming, the engineering firm hired to implement the plan, had said that one of its components—a new dam at the Ragged Mountain Reservoir—would cost double what the firm had originally estimated.

The idea behind Council’s resolution was to both gather information about the water supply plan and to demonstrate to the plan’s opponents (who include the group that calls itself Citizens for a Sustainable Water Plan) that the city is thoroughly examining its options. Councilor David Brown said in December, after Council held a joint session with the Albemarle County Board of Supervisors, that he felt the bodies “have a responsibility to make sure that our residents have confidence in Gannett Fleming and confidence in the process that’s moving forward.”

On June 2, the Rivanna Water and Sewer Authority released one of these studies: a review of the plans for the new dam by a panel of experts. Among the major findings was an assurance that the dam can be built for “substantially” less than Gannett Fleming’s August estimate of at least $72 million—though the panel did not specify a number, pending further investigations of subsurface conditions for the dam’s foundation. Director Tom Frederick says the RWSA is “encouraged” by the report, adding in an e-mail that “We still believe that the permitted plan is the best plan to achieve a long-term (50 years or greater) water plan.” The RWSA has spent $55,000 on the expert panel thus far; Frederick says the final cost estimate for the dam probably won’t come out until late 2009 or early 2010.

Charlottesville Mayor Dave Norris says the expert panel’s findings left him “a little disappointed….We spent a lot of money on this panel and I think they did a lot of good research, but we’re still not where we need to be in terms of actionable data.” CSWP goes further, highlighting in an open letter on June 11 the sections of the report that recommend further field studies. “They did not quantify the costs to perform these tasks nor any savings that might be associated with them,” the letter reads. CSWP also implies that RWSA stalled on releasing the report; the expert panel conducted its study March 10-12 and its report is dated April 6.

Norris adds that he’s “hoping against hope” that the various governing bodies involved can hit on a plan that does not involve building a large new dam. But there are still four studies yet to be completed before Council’s November resolution is satisfied: one on the feasibility and cost of dredging the South Fork Rivanna Reservoir, one on water conservation, and two involving a pipeline between the South Fork and Ragged Mountain reservoirs.

The RWSA, meanwhile, announced June 5 that it had formed a selection committee to choose a consultant to conduct the dredging study. The main focus of that investigation will be to determine how much sediment would be removed from the South Fork during dredging and whether a good site exists for treating and disposing of it. (Another report on dredging, this one conducted by the South Fork Rivanna Reservoir Stewardship Task Force and completed in January, primarily looked at reasons to dredge, as opposed to costs and feasibility.) Dredging study proposals are due June 17; the RWSA plans to decide on a consultant in August, and Frederick estimates the study would take four to eight months to complete. As to how much it’ll cost, no estimate will be available until the RWSA has chosen a consultant.

The RWSA also has on its plate the selection of a firm to continue the design process for the proposed new dam that’s part of the approved plan, and Frederick anticipates that decision will occur no later than July.

In short, the process of finalizing a water-supply plan is still far from completion. Time is anything but an idle concern for local officials. There is a state-mandated deadline of June 2011 for the community to repair or replace Ragged Mountain Dam because of safety concerns. But the expert panel who reviewed plans for the dam found that “late 2012 or early 2013” would be a more realistic completion date for a new dam. “They’re only going to let us delay that so long,” says Norris.

Though he advocates finding the best possible solution to the area’s need for a long-term plan, Norris allows that—given the state deadline, the need for a secure water supply during droughts, and the desire of many voters to see officials take action—the studies and deliberation can’t go on forever. “I’m not interested in delaying this thing indefinitely,” he says. “If we haven’t made a decision by this time next year, we’re in big trouble.”

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