By Brian Wheeler
Tuesday, February 22, 2011
As the community approaches the fifth anniversary of the approval of a 50-year water supply plan for Charlottesville and Albemarle County, city officials are again being asked to specify their design preference for a dam to be built at the Ragged Mountain Reservoir.
After polling the City Council in advance of Tuesday’s meeting, the only thing that was clear was that officials were anticipating a lively discussion and that the outcome of a potential vote remained uncertain. The council’s discussion occurred after press time.
After press time, Charlottesville City Council voted 3-2, with Norris and Edwards against, to endorse the all new earthen dam design with a 30′ initial rise in the reservoir at Ragged Mountain. Visit cvilletomorrow.org and DailyProgress.com early Wednesday for complete coverage of the discussion and the implications for the water supply plan.
“I have no idea what’s going to happen,” Mayor Dave Norris said.
The council has continued to review the differences between the earthen dam, favored by Albemarle, and a concrete extension of the existing dam, an approach the city has been exploring independently over the past year.
In January, Councilors Kristin Szakos, David Brown and Satyendra Huja voted to support a much larger reservoir as part of the almost $140 million water plan. Previously, after passing a resolution in September, the council had unanimously favored a phased approach to building what would have initially been a much smaller dam.
Now the dam’s first phase, however it is constructed, will make the expanded reservoir at least 30 feet higher. With the costs of the two designs now relatively close, the council has shifted its attention to a better understanding of potential environmental impacts.
“[The concrete dam] is clearly the more environmentally friendly option and the more cost-effective option,” Norris said. “Both types of dams produce the same amount of water, so why wouldn’t we choose the dam that has significantly less impact on the environment?”
Councilor Holly Edwards joined Norris in voting against the larger dam last month.
“It was my hope that we would be able to use the dam we have and just build upon that,” Edwards said. “I have no interest in building an entirely new dam.”
The council decided at its first meeting in February to give Albemarle officials one last opportunity to review the concrete dam design. In response, the Board of Supervisors wrote a letter to the council saying they continued to have concerns about the merits and cost-effectiveness of a concrete dam. The supervisors declined a presentation by the city’s engineering firm and asked the council to endorse an earthen dam.
“I can’t say I am fully there yet,” Szakos said. “Which dam we build is not a life and death thing to me. I am willing to hear arguments on both sides.”
Huja, who was previously the only councilor firmly behind the earthen dam, said he was still open to other options.
“My leaning is in that direction [toward an earthen dam], but I may change my mind tonight,” Huja said.
Brown says he has been persuaded by the advanced stage of the earthen dam design and the research by the Independent Technical Review Team that has evaluated the work of all the consultants on the dam project.
“I favor the earthen dam for a number of reasons, and while there are arguments on both sides, I like the idea of a new dam,” Brown said. “The ITRT study questioned the wisdom of building on top of [the 1908 dam] and I think we should take that seriously.”
Thomas L. Frederick Jr., the Rivanna Water & Sewer Authority’s executive director, has repeatedly reminded local officials about looming deadlines for the dam project set by the Virginia Soil and Water Conservation Board. The board has directed both localities to have final engineering completed on a dam in April with construction permits issued to build it by May.
Because of safety concerns with the existing dam dating to 1978, state officials have said the community could face unspecified enforcement actions if the dam is not repaired or replaced on schedule. In a report this week, Frederick told the RWSA board that he is seeing “a significant increase in diligence by [the Virginia Dam Safety office] in recent months to review the progress of this project.”
“That’s a fear tactic,” Norris said. “We know that the state wants to see us come to a resolution with some concrete progress. … We have had 30 years of extensions on this operating permit, and I have full confidence that if the [concrete dam] approach is adopted we can get moving on the final design.”
Szakos said while the design for the concrete dam, if selected, would have to play catch-up to the earthen dam, she believes it could still be accomplished on about the same schedule.
“The construction timeline of [the concrete dam] is quicker, even if it takes a couple more months of engineering,” Szakos said. “It wouldn’t delay completion of the dam significantly.”
“If we decide on [the concrete dam], it would be because we thought it was the better option,” Szakos added. “If it was cheaper and quicker to build, and we believe less environmentally impactful, then I would think, since we are an independent elected body, that would be worth [the county] paying attention to.”
The council’s discussion came after press time Tuesday. Visit cvilletomorrow.org and DailyProgress.com for complete coverage of the discussion and the implications for the water supply plan.