Elected officials, members of the Rivanna Water and Sewer Authority (RWSA), and environmental leaders were among the crowd of locals that gathered atop the newly completed Ragged Mountain Dam last Thursday to celebrate the official opening of a controversial project that Charlottesville mayor Satyendra Huja called “the most significant infrastructure achievement in this community in our lifetimes.”
It almost wasn’t. Enlarging the Ragged Mountain Reservoir outside Charlottesville and building a new dam was a hotly contested part of a long-term regional water supply plan that took more than a decade to finalize, as many in the city raised opposition to a larger “off-stream” reservoir at the Ragged Mountain site. A dam has existed there since the 1880s; a larger one was built in 1908, and a pipe carrying water from the reservoir in Sugar Hollow, about 15 miles away, was constructed in 1929. Opposition to the latest expansion focused on the clearcutting required, as well as the $36 million pricetag.
But a severe drought in 2002 had underscored what many officials insisted was a dire need to expand the water supply for the growing region, and officials ultimately abandoned an alternative—dredging the existing South Fork Reservoir northeast of Charlottesville. Final designs for the new 192’ dam were approved in 2011, and construction was completed in mid-July. The newly expanded reservoir has been filling back up since, but slowly; while it will eventually hold 1.5 billion gallons, water levels are still some six feet below the top of the 1908 dam.
A new 36-inch pipeline connecting the South Fork Reservoir—which officials concede is shrinking in capacity thanks to sedimentation—has yet to be completed. RWSA director Tom Frederick said staggering the infrastructure improvements was necessary for budget reasons. But that didn’t stop officials from celebrating last week’s milestone after what RWSA Board chair Mike Gaffney, channeling the Grateful Dead, called a “long, strange trip.”