Green groups splinter over water plan

A 50-year water supply plan that includes the expansion of the Ragged Mountain Reservoir and the construction of a pipeline received approval by the state Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ), though people opposing the plan say that it is not yet a done deal. The DEQ issued the Rivanna Water and Sewer Authority (RWSA) a Water Protection Permit on February 11, a major step forward for a plan that detractors call overly expensive and unnecessary.

Previous coverage:

Flood of water repairs
Area system needs $190 million—guess who pays?

Water may be low, but blame’s high
RWSA weathers stormy comments on water supply plan

Flowing toward the future
RWSA approves $118M five-year plan to ease strained infrastructure

Uncharted waters
What happened to our water supply plan?

The plan, unanimously approved by the city and county in 2006, was once seen by environmentalists as a victory, though recently they have splintered, with voices of opposition emerging. The plan authorizes the construction of a new dam at the Ragged Mountain Reservoir, raising the water’s elevation by 45′. According to the RWSA, this would increase the reservoir storage to 2.19 billion gallons from 464 million. The price tag: $142 million.

To pay for both the dam and the pipeline at the same time, RWSA estimates water rates would annually increase 7 percent for the city and 11.7 percent for the county over the next five years, according to Charlottesville Tomorrow. In the county, that would mean an average monthly bill would rise to $44 in 2013 from $25 today.

Rich Collins, former board chairman of the RWSA, calls the permit “no big deal” and says the plan is a bad idea for a number of reasons. “Those who pay water and sewer rates, especially city residents, they’re getting a disproportionate share of the cost, and it is producing water at high risk of failure and contamination,” Collins says.

And, Collins says, it is water that the area doesn’t need. According to Citizens for a Sustainable Water Plan, of which Collins is a member, the plan supports area growth of 100,000 more people. Collins is also a member of Advocates for a Sustainable Albemarle Population (ASAP), an anti-growth group. The plan would undoubtedly support further growth in the county.

“Right now, more and more people feel that [growth] isn’t a good idea, and that more importantly, we now understand at certain points of growth, the costs become disproportionate to the benefit,” he says. “If you were not to increase the water supply to meet demand from new residents, then you could very well get along without any new reservoir supplies.”

Ridge Schuyler of the Nature Conservatory calls the anti-growth argument against the plan “simplistic.”

“It sounds good on its face, but when you dig deeper, it doesn’t make a lot of sense,” he says. “The public water supply provides water for Charlottesville and the designated growth areas of Albemarle County…the places where we are encouraging the growth.” If you constrain growth there, says Schuyler, you move it to rural areas, where new residents simply sink wells. “Rather than stopping growth, it’s going to promote sprawl.”

To fund the $142 million dam and pipeline for the Ragged Mountain Reservoir (above), RWSA estimates water rates would increase annually 7 percent for the city and 11.7 percent for the county.

Some local environmentalists thought they had scored a green coup in 2006 when they were able to tank a previous water plan to pump in water from the James River. With the current plan, they succeeded in using water from the local watershed while accommodating a growing population.

“Once they said, ‘We’re going to go with this local plan, and we can get just as much water,’ we were all high-fiving this great victory,” says Jeff Werner of the Piedmont Environmental Council. “If we want to stay in the local watershed, we have to prove that we can get just as much water as the projection says we need. We can’t argue for less water. The numbers have to work.”

The plan will need another permit, this time at the federal level from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. According to RWSA, this permit is expected in the spring. But former City Councilor Kevin Lynch—who was a member of the Council that approved the 50-year plan—says he has “serious concerns” about where the plan is heading, calling it “environmentally irresponsible.”

“You can’t very well call yourself sustainable if you go and build a big reservoir, and then as soon as it silts up, go build another one,” he says. Part of the reasoning behind expanding the Ragged Mountain Reservoir hinges on the diminishing capacity at the South Fork Reservoir due to a build-up of sediment at its bottom. Lynch supports the idea of dredging the South Fork, which the RWSA has rejected, arguing that the cost—up to $145 million over 50 years, it says—doesn’t justify the expanded capacity.

Lynch also questions the urgency with which RWSA is pushing the plan. “We’re not in an immediate crisis here,” he says. “There’s another subtext that [the RWSA’s] been putting out there, and they truly have people scared that there’s some kind of crisis going on. And it’s simply not true. We have plenty of water here.

“Why do we need to spend $142 million? Really the only redeeming feature of this plan is that Rivanna’s engineers get to play Tonka toys for the next 10 years. That’s a lot more sexy than dredging.”

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