Mayor sees new cost estimates for dam as ‘major breakthrough’ in water debate
By Brian Wheeler
Thursday, December 16, 2010
An engineering firm hired by the city of Charlottesville has revised its cost estimates for a dam being considered as part of the community water supply plan.
Black & Veatch
spent the past several weeks incorporating
feedback from an independent panel of dam experts
and has raised a
previous cost estimate
by $1.2 million.
The firm is developing a concept plan for building on top of the existing
Lower Ragged Mountain Dam
as an alternative to the new earthen dam in the approved 2006 water plan. The competing approaches to the dam’s design are now at the crux of the debate about a long-term water plan sought by the city and Albemarle County.
said the letter released by Black & Veatch on Wednesday was a “major breakthrough” and he called for the county and the University of Virginia to drop its preference for an earthen dam in favor of building the first phase of a concrete dam.
“I hope we can all agree to move forward in due haste to implement the approach set forth by Black & Veatch,” Norris wrote in what he described as a personal statement on his blog. “We have an excellent opportunity now to address the dam safety issues at Ragged Mountain and start expanding our long-term water supply.”
Kenneth C. Boyd
supports the construction of the earthen dam and serves with Norris on the board of the
Rivanna Water & Sewer Authority
. Boyd said he still had many questions about the Black & Veatch proposal.
“I would disagree that this is a ‘major breakthrough.’ It looks like a preliminary report that might have additional costs,” Boyd said. “Once they look at the other recommendations from the expert panel, it could mushroom into more. … This [letter] indicates the city would have to spend more money to do additional engineering work.”
Greg Zamensky, an engineer with consultant Black & Veatch, wrote that his firm now believes the existing dam can be expanded, raising the reservoir pool by 45 feet, for a cost between $13.5 million and $19.5 million. Factoring in other costs identified by Black & Veatch
in its September presentation
to the City Council, the concrete dam, if built all at once, now has an estimated total cost between $22.2 million and $28.2 million.
Download Black & Veatch’s December 14, 2010 letter
Meanwhile, the earthen dam’s final design is currently in progress and being paid for by the Albemarle County Service Authority. It would raise the reservoir pool at Ragged Mountain by 42 feet and be built downstream of the existing concrete dam.
The $142.6 million water plan first approved in 2006 includes $ million as the total budget for the earthen dam. About $3 million has already been spent on engineering studies and preliminary design work. Some of those expenditures were for earlier concrete design concepts recommended by consultant Gannett Fleming that have since been discarded.
Charlottesville’s City Council supports
phasing the dam’s expansion and only raising the reservoir pool by 13 feet initially. Black & Veatch has not provided a cost estimate for building the dam in two phases. In September, Zamensky told the City Council that “no design has really been done” yet and that his firm’s range of cost estimates reflected the resulting “great deal of uncertainty” about the project.
Norris emphasized in an interview that the main point of the city’s approach is to limit upfront costs and the environmental impacts of a much larger reservoir. He said he believes the first phase of the dam, with an expanded base to support a second phase in the future, can now be built for about $14.3 million.
“Let’s not indebt our residents now for infrastructure we won’t need for several decades to come,” Norris said. “If we can find a path that saves us $20 million or more, it doesn’t make sense to continue down the path we have been on. Up until yesterday, we all had questions about whether the Black & Veatch approach was viable and cost effective.”
Last week, the RWSA released a written report from an independent panel of three dam experts that identified 15 technical areas in the Black & Veatch concept needing more study. The report notes that money spent “remediating” the old dam “would possibly be better spent constructing a new dam.”
“It seems like they haven’t addressed all the questions raised by the panel,” Boyd said. “We are a lot further along solidifying the costs of the earthen dam.”
Zamensky was unavailable to comment, but he noted in his letter that Black & Veatch had limited time to respond to all of the comments from the expert panel and that his firm’s intent was to “capture several of the major and potentially costly items to adjust [the cost estimate].”
Thomas L. Frederick Jr.
, executive director of the RWSA, said Black & Veatch was not expected to have had time to address all the feedback from the expert panel.
“I think it’s very premature to start comparing cost estimates when they haven’t addressed all the issues,” Frederick said. “We recognize it takes time to do that and it’s up to the city to decide if they want to pursue this further.”
, director of Charlottesville’s Department of Public Works, the city has paid Black & Veatch $186,135 for their work on the concrete dam feasibility study. The May 2010 contract limits costs in the first phase of study to about $200,000. A second phase, if authorized by the city, would allow Black & Veatch to refine a preliminary design concept for another approximately $150,000.
Norris said the City Council would discuss the water supply plan at its meeting Monday.
“The first thing we need to do is get a sense of council,” Norris said. “Assuming council stands by its previous resolution to phase the dam, we can sit down with the county and figure out a way forward.”