Crisis Management

"I  think we’re in a crisis,” City Manager Gary O’Connell deadpanned to City Council at its meeting on Monday, September 16. It was an uncharacteristically drastic statement for the understated O’Connell, reflecting the panic in City Hall as Charlottesville rapidly dries up.

Last week City Council approved a series of harsh water restrictions [See Extra!, page 11], motivated by sobering data. “We have between 80 and 100 days of water left,” public works director Judith Mueller told Council. “There’s no significant rain predicted in the long-term forecast.”

The local water supply, as measured by reservoir levels, is dropping by about 0.6 percent per day, down to about 55 percent last week. City Councilors spent the September 16 meeting avidly seeking ways to force residents to conserve water. They considered a series of restrictions that make repeated water violations a Class 1 misdemeanor, punishable by a $2,500 fine and up to one year in jail. At the public hearing that opened the meeting, some residents claimed the proposed ordinance wasn’t harsh enough.

“By the time these regulations take effect, it will be too late,” said John Wheeler. “We will have suffering and economic disaster. We need to have a rolling shut-off of residential water starting now.”

Council agreed, and during the meeting they added even more teeth to the proposed restrictions. They eventually passed an ordinance that, effective September 17, closed all commercial car washes, prohibited the watering of athletic fields, limited laundry at hotels, banned showering in health clubs without low-flow shower heads and ordered all water leaks be repaired within three days of notification.

Car wash business owners called the forced closings unfair. “A full-service car wash is very close to a sit-down restaurant in water use,” said Henry Weinschenk, who owns Express Car Wash on Route 29N. He and other car wash owners said the 15 car washes in the City and County account for only one-third of 1 percent of total water consumption.

Nevertheless, the Councilors’ reluctance to interfere with local business was trumped by the fact that Charlottesville may run out of fresh water as soon as December. Mueller told Council its main focus should be preserving water for fire protection and basic human health. She acknowledged that some of the City’s new conservation measures were “symbolic,” but such steps were necessary to convince people that the water shortage is a serious threat.

“The health and safety of our community is at stake,” said Councilor Blake Caravati. “Washing my car is not my priority.”

“It’s my livelihood,” retorted a car wash owner from the gallery.

Council’s new restrictions order all businesses to document water-saving techniques that will cut their usage by 20 percent, and Mueller said the City has sample plans to help businesses—especially restaurants—to conform.

Still, the most difficult challenge facing City leaders is to convince residents to curb their personal water use, which accounts for about 80 percent of all water used in the urban area, according to water officials.

“Despite all the restrictions, there have been days when our consumption has actually gone up,” lamented Caravati.

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