As part of a national campaign called Imagine a Day Without Water, members from the Rivanna Water and Sewer Authority, Albemarle County Service Authority and City of Charlottesville set up booths last week on the Downtown Mall and asked passersby to describe the many ways they use water. Making tea, brushing teeth, filling water balloons and fighting fires made the list, but how much do locals really know about H20?
The Rivanna Water and Sewer Authority, a water wholesaler for the city and county, serves about 120,000 people. Though its maximum daily demand this year was 12.2 million gallons of water on September 8, RWSA usually provides about 9.6 million gallons each day—that’s a lot of water balloons.
RWSA also treats more than 10 million gallons of wastewater each day and returns it to the Rivanna River.
RWSA’s water supply benefited immensely from the recent rainstorm, the company’s executive director Tom Frederick says—during the week of the storm rain meters showed between five and six-and-a-half inches of collected rain, whereas around four inches are usually measured each month. In the reservoirs, 81.2 percent of storage capacity was met on October 6, while only 64.2 percent was full on September 29, just one week before the storm.
The Rivanna water authority has the capacity to store 2.6 billion gallons of untreated water in its five reservoirs: Sugar Hollow, South Fork Rivanna, Totier Creek, Beaver Creek and Ragged Mountain, the latter a controversial mega dam that was completed in July 2014 and dedicated that September. When it was proposed, some locals thought the environmental damages of building it outweighed its purpose, however Frederick says it’s now only 9.4 feet lower than the primary spillway, whereas the water level was 43 feet below the primary spillway when it was built. More than 10 gallons of treated water are stored in separate storage tanks connected directly to the piping system.
“It’s the world under our feet that we forget,” says Teri Kent, the RWSA’s communications manager. Of the 67 miles of water lines RWSA supports, some of the Charlottesville pipes are more than 100 years old.
Improving infrastructure might be inconvenient for people living in the city, admits Lauren Hildebrand, director of the city’s utilities, but she says Charlottesville is about halfway through 48 separate replacement projects, which aim to improve water quality and replace aging pipes. With long-term plans in place and a plentiful water supply to serve many generations, she says local water authorities are ahead of the game.
“I would’ve said five years ago that we were behind other places in the state,” Frederick says, adding that state and federal law does not allow any utilities to plan their future water supply for longer than 50 years, and the project completed at Ragged Mountain was based on a 50-year plan. “For that reason, I believe we are now ahead of most utilities in Virginia in providing for future water needs.”
Vice Mayor Dede Smith, who was part of a citizen group that opposed creating the Ragged Mountain reservoir, agrees that the current water status in Charlottesville and Albemarle is good, but attributes it to successful conservation efforts and says water usage has dropped about 30 percent since 2000.
When it comes to the Ragged Mountain reservoir, though, “the things that we said would go wrong did,” Smith says. “We predicted that the ecological value of the natural area would be compromised and it has.” Birds frequent the spot less often and more than 100 acres have been clear cut, she adds. Her group feared the reservoir would be filled from the Moormans River and it was, she says, after people from RWSA “turned on the spigot full blast” and the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality intervened. The Moormans is now in critical condition, she says.
Clarification: During the 50-year water supply plan process the RWSA secured a permit from the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality that allows it to release water into the Moormans River to mimic the natural inflows to that water system. It monitors both the dam and downstream water levels in relation to the Moormans.
Correction: This article was changed at 3:44pm October 16 to reflect the correct name of the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality.