Hard Water

  • LEAVE A COMMENT

Rain…The word alone forms a complete prayer. Spoken as a plea or demand, the simple invocation has been a common mantra across the Southeast this year. The congregation of thirsty supplicants included, until recently, those of us living in the Rivanna Watershed, which in the past four years has been shy about 40 inches of rain.

To everyone’s relief, our prayers have been answered. In the past two months, a blessing from the jet stream dropped roughly 10 inches of rain on the Watershed, bringing this year’s precipitation levels in line with annual norms. Around here, perhaps no one is more relieved to see the drought subside than the City and County water officials responsible for keeping a clean, cheap supply of life’s elixir swirling down our toilets.It’s refreshing to again see full reservoirs and real dinnerplates in Charlottesville. Yes, the rain soothed a shortage and mitigated an emergency. It did not, however, solve the real problem, which is this: The Rivanna Water and Sewer Authority has seen this crisis coming for more than 25 years, and yet now, coming out of it, our water supply remains at the mercy of divine intervention.

 

When in drought…

Charles Ancona has lived in Albemarle County since 1967, and in that time he has seen, he says, “many brown Augusts.” He remembers a drought in 1976 that prompted government conservation ordinances. It also convinced many people that, although water had been taken for granted as a “natural resource,” dominated by technology to serve economic growth, water might begin to limit the region’s blossoming development.

“All these years later, and we’ve still done nothing,” says Ancona. Although he draws his water from a well in rural Albemarle, he has followed the water situation for 30 years, and he’s mystified by the response of local officials.

“You can’t have the growth we’ve had, and the reduction in supply, and expect to have sufficient water,” Ancona says.

The last time Charlottesville impounded a water supply was in 1966, when the City built a 1.68 billion-gallon reservoir on the South Fork Rivanna River. Since then, the region’s population has more than doubled, to at least 124,000. But along the way, rather than meet increased demand, the South Fork reservoir has lost about 500 million gallons of its capacity, thanks to sediment filling in its bottom.

In 1972, Charlottesville and Albemarle launched the Rivanna Water and Sewer Authority as an independent agency to manage the region’s shared water resources. Within a few short years, when studies showed that demand would outpace supply sometime early in this century, one of the RWSA’s main jobs became to provide enough water to satisfy the growth.

The RWSA met this challenge like an ostrich, Ancona says: “They must have their heads stuck in that sediment.”

Indeed, the rain has been followed by a deluge of criticism for local officials, who critics believe are as culpable as God for the recent water shortage.

“What are you going to do when it’s gone? Vote your ass out of office!” says local bartender Al Zappa, playing on the City’s cartoonish conservation posters. They depict a man examining the dry nozzle of a garden hose, apparently unaware that he’s standing on the hose with a bulge of water building up behind his shoe. Is that cartoon Charlottesvillian supposed to be us, Joe and Jane Car Washer? Is the City saying we’re morons, dumbly pinching off our hose, about to get squirted in the eye?

Many people say the cartoon better represents the RWSA. Some say the water officials must be truly idiotic––after all, they’ve seen a water crisis coming for decades, and yet they’ve done nothing to increase or maintain supply.

Others believe the RWSA feigned surprise at the water shortage. Henry Weinscheck, for one, thinks public officials are the ones standing on the hose, intentionally blocking our water.

“Was it bad planning, or a determined effort? That’s the question,” says Weinscheck, who owns Express Car Wash on Route 29. “The water shortage was not ineptitude. It was deliberate.”

Granted, Weinscheck has never been a cheerleader for the City. He’s a member of the North Charlottesville Business Association (comprising mostly people who own land or operate businesses on 29N), a group most famous for unilaterally supporting the Route 29 Western Bypass. Weinscheck himself defied City Council’s order on August 23 to shut down all commercial car washes.

“It was a knee-jerk reaction [by Council] to get people’s attention,” he claims. “It didn’t do much to reduce water consumption.”

City public works director Judith Mueller admits she doesn’t know how much water was saved by closing car washes. “People understood that car washes were not a good use of our drinking water,” she says. “No one ever called me to complain about it.” Most car washes, she says, imported their own water and reopened.

The notion that some leaders of the RWSA have conspired to limit water and stifle growth is popular among business owners, real estate developers and others for whom growth means profit. Their official house organ, The Daily Progress, parroted the sentiment in a series of editorials last month. But it’s not solely the usual pro-growth advocates who express skepticism about the RWSA.

“It’s all about keeping people out,” says Stephanie White, a UVA-trained climatologist who works at Perrin Quarles Associates. “It’s outrageous.”

Indisputably, there was a drought. White, however, points out that local reservoirs, including Sugar Hollow and Ragged Mountain, were full in July, and it took merely a couple of dry summer months to drain them. Drought or no drought, she says, such a dry snap could happen anytime. “In the summer, the weather is much more volatile,” she says.

The skeptics have some pretty damning evidence on their side. It’s been established that for 30 years the RWSA knew demand would skyrocket. Yet only now, with doomsday on the horizon, did the RWSA move to expand the region’s supply with what most observers characterize as a “Band-Aid” solution.

The RWSA denies any conspiracy––to a point. The current Chairman of the Board, Rich Collins, along with former chairs Treva Cromwell, Francis Fife and Jack Marshall, this year founded Advocates for a Sustainable Albemarle Population (ASAP). They called for a debate on how to slow and ultimately cap regional growth. Collins and Cromwell say the chairs have never forced their agenda on other board members. But Collins admits he likes a soapbox.

“I look at my role as a voice for stewardship of the watershed,” says Collins. “To say that growth is a holy grail is absurd, and to be concerned merely with supply at all costs is a short-sighted vision for the future. We don’t have unlimited supply. We need to include growth in our planning. I use the pulpit that’s there, for good or bad, to highlight these ideas.”

Conspiracy or not, water shortages disturb our quality of life and can seriously dampen the region’s economic prosperity. The RWSA blamed the drought, but rainfall wasn’t actually the issue. The drought merely exposed our real problems, which now lie in the open like dead tress strewn across the crusty mud at the bottom of an empty reservoir.

Water provides; growth consumes––when the two balance, there’s no problem. The RWSA’s dams and pipes have restrained and shaped the Watershed to fulfill dreams of unlimited growth. For the past 30 years, however, Charlottesville and Albemarle have failed to take water into account as the region grew.

The drought just proved something the RWSA should have already known, that water can destroy as well as create. Similarly, the deluge didn’t resolve the conflict between growth and water. It just submerged the tension once again—for now.

 

Water fight

The simple, miraculous liquid from which all life springs has been the source of some bitter disputes between Charlottesville and Albemarle. On the surface, the arguments seem to be about land and money. In truth, the real font of City-County tensions has most often been the question of water.

Before a revenue-sharing agreement reached in the 1990s helped the two jurisdictions fairly divide tax revenue, the question of who pays for water was answered by land grabs and courtroom battles. Pre-RWSA, the City built water infrastructure (such as reservoirs, treatment plants and pipes) for both localities. To help pay for those costs, Charlottesville would occasionally annex portions of Albemarle where business had boomed—along the water and sewer lines—thus bringing more property tax revenue into the City. Annexations had to be approved by a judge, and these hearings, which the City almost always won, were bitter, say those who recall them. The courts’ reasoning was that since Charlottesville incurred the cost of growth, it should reap the spoils.

After losing a particularly vicious annexation battle for businesses on 29N in 1961, Albemarle grew tired of Charlottesville triumphantly using water to justify territorial incursions. The County wanted to build its own network of pipes and treatment plants, and it applied for federal funds to do so. But when the State bureaucrats who doled out the cash saw that Albemarle wanted to duplicate City services, the Commonwealth withheld support for funding until the two jurisdictions learned how to play nice.

“They said the City and County share a common resource in the Rivanna River,” recalls Bill Brent, director of the Albemarle County Service Authority since 1971. “It wasn’t in our best interest––or the river’s––to compete.”

In 1972, the two jurisdictions created a corporation, the RWSA, with a dual mission: provide water and sewer services for the expected growth rate, as determined by City Council and the Board of Supervisors; and protect the Watershed. The RWSA is led by a board of directors (comprising two City officials, two from the County, and a non-affiliated, appointed chairman) as well as an independent executive director.

“Some referred to it as a shotgun wedding,” says Brent. The RWSA’s marriage of convenience solved long-running spats between the two jurisdictions. The epic struggle between water and growth, however, has proved far too complicated for any single agency.

Those two goals clashed soon after a brief, cooperative honeymoon during which the RWSA succeeded in vastly improving the region’s sewage treatment capabilities.

Before the RWSA, most of Albemarle didn’t have water and sewer lines. County leaders tried to make do without them, allowing developers to build subdivisions using well water and septic tank systems.

“You could see a water crisis coming,” says Peggy King, then president of the local League of Women Voters.

That’s because just beneath Charlottesville’s Downtown Mall and a few feet below the County’s spectacular rural vistas, local geology is a hostile foundation for big developments. Under a layer of topsoil and finely crushed stone, there’s a chaotic pile of impermeable rock laced with crevices. The only groundwater the land can contain is what fills up these cracks. In Western Albemarle, groundwater is especially scarce.

“I think a scientist told us the geology was confused,” says Gerald Fisher, chairman of the County Board of Supervisors between 1976 and 1987.

Local geology makes it nearly impossible to discern whether wells for subdivisions like West Leigh will last three years or 30. During the drought of ‘76, that and other subdivisions ran dry, and the RWSA had to truck in water for several weeks.

To make things worse some residents woke up to raw sewage on their lawns––Albemarle’s geology also makes it hard to tell whether wastewater from septic systems will filter deep into the ground.

“The residents eventually had to pay to get connected to the water and sewer systems, at a considerable expense to them,” says Fisher.

 

Turning off the tap

In 1976, drought brought water shortages and government-imposed restrictions to Charlottesville for the first time in recent memory. Newspapers reported that the crisis made people aware of water’s “true value.” Some people wondered how much more growth Albemarle could tolerate. The RWSA promised to take action.

Sound familiar?

When that drought hit, the government was already using its control of the water supply to manipulate free enterprise. “We never talked about limiting the supply of water,” says former County Supervisor Fisher. “We talked about limiting where it would be delivered. At first, the Albemarle County Sewer Authority would hook up services wherever they could, and that caused sprawl. Then we tried to set some limits.”

Albemarle made baby steps toward integrating water and land-use planning. By the mid-’70s, officials knew the South Fork Rivanna Reservoir was rapidly filling with sediment trapped by dams (according to current data, the SFR can safely provide 16 million gallons of water per day; by 2050, sedimentation will reduce that to 5 million gallons daily). At the time, experts believed that erosion caused by development was exacerbating the siltation process.

So between 1975 and 1980, the County Supervisors passed ordinances designed to protect the Rivanna River from the effects of development. They enforced erosion control methods and put most of the public land around the reservoir into conservation easement. Supervisors also down-zoned all the rural land in the Rivanna Watershed, about one-third of Albemarle, drastically reducing the County’s supply of commercial-ready real estate.

Developers revolted. In those years, Fisher says, developers fought the new rules with lawsuits, and some took litigation to ridiculous extremes.

One developer sued every individual supervisor personally, for $1 million each, says Fisher. Another developer sued for libel several members of the League of Women Voters and Citizens for Albemarle, two groups that had opposed development projects during public hearings. None of the developers won, says Fisher, but the experience was expensive and traumatic nevertheless.

“Trying to hold a public meeting at that time was agonizing,” says Fisher. “You’d have the developer up there speaking, and all these people with clenched teeth and intensity in their faces. But they were afraid to say anything. That’s a period I hope we don’t have to relive.”

“The question then was pretty much the same as it is now: How many people can we support?” says the League of Women Voters’ Peggy King. “Looking out for the good of the overall public went against the grain for a lot of locals.”

But in the ‘70s, no-growth or slow-growth voices were muted by RWSA promises to build a new reservoir on Buck Mountain Creek, a waterway originating in the northern Albemarle mountains, then flowing down through Free Union to the South Fork Rivanna River. Numerous studies said Buck Mountain was a prime spot for a dam.

After arguing for months on how to divide the project cost, the City and County settled on a surcharge system. New water customers still pay a $200 surcharge to cover the $6 million of land RWSA bought along Buck Mountain Creek.

Treva Cromwell, who chaired the RWSA between 1978 and 1986, said at the time that the new reservoir could not be developed overnight—and she didn’t think that should be a problem. After all, studies predicted the existing water supply could meet demand until 2012; the RWSA predicted it would take eight to 10 years to build the Buck Mountain facility. They were so confident that when Cromwell retired from the RWSA, she received a plaque engraved with an image of the Buck Mountain reservoir.

In the early 1990s, the RWSA began the long process of applying for State and federal permission to build the reservoir. In the ‘60s, it only took four years to build the South Fork Rivanna Reservoir. By the 1990s, however, State and federal regulators at the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality and the Environmental Protection Agency were no longer keen on new reservoirs.

“The regulatory agencies reflected the new national mood, that you don’t build dams on creeks and change the hydrology cycle,” says Cromwell.

On top of that cultural shift, in the mid-’90s, scientists discovered an endangered species, the James River spinymussel, living in Buck Mountain Creek. The rare invertebrate effectively killed the Buck Mountain Reservoir.

“The DEQ said they wouldn’t permit a reservoir until we had tried everything else first,” says Cromwell. “If there ever was a shock that went through the community, it was when we couldn’t build the reservoir.”

So the RWSA hired new consultants to figure out the best alternatives to a new reservoir. By then, the doomsday scenario was moved up to about 2000, when consultants predicted water demand would eclipse supply. The consultants, Vanasse Hangen Brustlin, Inc., further predicted that by 2050, the County’s growth rate and the reservoirs’ siltation rate would combine to produce a water shortfall in the neighborhood of 12 million gallons per day.

But the RWSA had other problems, namely the Ivy Landfill, which had polluted nearby groundwater. It needed to be closed and monitored at high cost to the RWSA and, ultimately, to taxpayers.

“Landfill issues were taking so much of Rivanna’s time for so many years,” says former City Councilor David Toscano. “Council was not as engaged in water issues as it should have been. But, until a crisis emerges, people aren’t focused on it very much.”

 

An unchanging tide

It’s said that there are no new problems in government––just the same issues appearing and disappearing in the public’s field of vision. Conflicts between development and resources have been around a long time, but as Toscano implies, only in times of shortage do people pay heed.

The recent crisis reminded us, once again, that water is not unlimited. It also showed that people can work together to protect a common resource. For that reason, the experience was valuable, says Downtown restaurateur Tony LaBua.

“The City did exactly as it should have done,” he says. “People really stepped up to the plate.” LaBua says that after the deluge he’s keeping the waterless hand sanitizer in his bathroom at Chap’s. The posters––”If it’s yellow let it mellow. If it’s brown, flush it down”––are staying up indefinitely, too.

“It’s nothing a little incense can’t take care of,” LaBua says.

People’s willingness to conserve water is certainly part of the drought story. On August 23, when the City and County first passed mandatory water restrictions, the municipal water system used about 12.5 million gallons per day; by October 25, consumption had dropped below 7 million gallons per day. Water officials laud the public for their efforts while simultaneously “rewarding” them with hiked water rates––from $3 per 1,000 gallons last summer to $7.48 per 1,000 gallons in November.

“People feel like they’re being punished,” says leading City Republican Jon Bright, who keeps close tabs on public sentiment at the Downtown branch of his Spectacle Shop business. “I’ve heard so many people say that we’ve sucked it up, we did our part, and now we’re being punished.”

The rate characterizes RWSA’s Catch-22. Because all the Authority’s money comes from water sales, when people conserve water, the RWSA has to raise rates to keep up its revenue.

The money is also helping to pay for the $13.2 million, three-part plan to dredge sediment from the South Fork Rivanna, raise the dam by four feet and re-open a pumping station on the Mechums River—a plan widely viewed as a quick but temporary fix. RWSA Executive Director Lawrence Tropea says raising the dam will take at least two years. The pump station should be open by next summer. There’s no telling how long it may take to clean out some 70,000 cubic feet of silt. Right now, the RWSA is waiting for the Service Authority’s Bill Brent and the City’s Public Works Director, Judith Meuller, to hash out a cost-sharing scheme.

Clearly, the deluge hasn’t solved our water crisis. Groundwater, which feeds the streams that flow into our reservoirs, is still below normal. More significantly, there are no clear solutions to the long-term conflict between growth and water.

Any government efforts to slow down growth would be “disastrous,” says Leigh Middleditch, an attorney for McGuire Woods who serves on a water advisory committee. “Growth is inevitable, and managing growth should not be dependent on the water supply. What’s the best approach beyond these temporary fixes? Anything is going to be terribly expensive. The community’s got to debate these things.”

RWSA Chair Collins agrees with Middleditch’s call for a public debate. He believes it would be best to talk about limiting demand as well as increasing supply. Given the State and federal reluctance to approve new reservoirs, building new water impoundments won’t be easy; nor will it be simple to stop growth, either.

“Anyone can come, but not everyone can come,” says Collins. “At some point, we’re going to have to plan and seek the optimum level of population.”

These debates may go on for another 30 years. But by then, water, in its own soft way, will have attacked Albemarle’s solid trend of human and economic growth. In the past 30 years, Charlottesville and Albemarle haven’t made much progress resolving their liquid arguments. That trend likely could continue if the recent deluge dilutes the public water consciousness, which lately made everyone so proud.