A split city council endorses earthen dam for water supply plan

By Brian Wheeler

Charlottesville Tomorrow

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Charlottesville City Council voted Tuesday to endorse construction of an all-new earthen dam, which will be built over the next three years to raise the

Ragged Mountain Reservoir

by at least 30 feet as part of the 50-year water supply plan.

The action ends the city’s investigation of salvaging the original concrete dam built in 1908. Council’s 3-2 vote also brings the city largely into agreement with Albemarle County officials who have been calling for immediate construction of an even taller earthen dam.

“I have trouble, frankly, seeing us moving towards a concrete dam doing anything other than throwing a monkey wrench into the process and derailing the city and county working together on a dam,” said Councilor

David Brown


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Implementation of the now almost $140 million water plan, first approved in 2006, has been delayed over the past several years by major changes in the dam’s design approach, and by the city’s investigations of water supply alternatives. Since 2007, a group of concerned community members has insisted that council give further consideration to dredging, water conservation, and saving the existing dam.

Dede Smith

, with

Citizens for a Sustainable Water Plan

, said she had hoped council would wait for more information on dredging, a new water demand analysis, and a cost sharing arrangement with Albemarle.

“I didn’t expect them to vote at all,” said Smith. “I thought they would be a little bit more responsible in the sense that they would understand that there is a lot of more important information that is yet to come.”

“There are still more decisions to be made,” Smith added. “The county is probably not going to be satisfied with a 30-foot rise in the dam height.”

Ann H. Mallek

, chairwoman of the Albemarle Board of Supervisors, said she was pleased with the outcome.

“In times when citizens are so deeply divided on an issue, it can be very difficult for elected officials to choose a path to take,” said Mallek in an interview. “Studying all the available information is what you need to do, and I am pleased City Council followed that path and made what I think is a wonderful decision.”

Swing vote

By any measure, Charlottesville City Councilor

Kristin Szakos

knew she was going to have a difficult decision to make on the dam. However, when it became clear in the deliberations that her four colleagues were split down the middle on the two dam options, it seemed to become almost gut wrenching for Szakos, who realized she was the deciding vote.

“As city councilors we are responsible for safeguarding our assets and doing what is best for our residents, and that’s something that I am really struggling with on this issue,” Szakos said. “I see looking around me that I am a swing vote on this, and so I’d actually like the folks on both sides of this one to try and convince me.”


Dave Norris

and councilor

Holly Edwards

made perhaps the biggest shift in position when they said they would support a concrete dam that raised the reservoir by 30 feet. Both had voted against the much larger reservoir plan on

Jan 18


Szakos said she was looking for a vote that could unite council moving forward, and while that seemed tantalizingly close to happening when Norris said he could vote for a larger dam, Brown and

Satyendra Huja

made it clear they continued to favor the earthen dam design.

“I support the earthen dam, basically because the team of experts that reviewed the old dam said they had serious concerns about its integrity,” Huja said. “Also I think [the concrete dam’s construction] will have significant negative environmental impact … in terms of the carbon footprint which is three times that of the earthen dam.”

After Brown made a motion to endorse the earthen dam, the first four councilors pressed their voting buttons and a 2-2 split was visible briefly on the electronic display in council chambers. After a few second pause, Szakos asked for the motion to be restated. Norris said the vote was to build an earthen dam and Szakos pressed her button in favor of that design.

A nasty debate

Betty Mooney

, also with

Citizens for a Sustainable Water Plan

, told council at the end of the meeting that they were ignoring information her group and city-funded studies had previously uncovered.

“I am very disappointed,” Mooney said. “I realize it’s very difficult to change course. This plan was promoted by a lot of very powerful forces and some citizens stood up and said some of this information is incorrect. … You have gotten facts, and what I don’t understand is why you are now ignoring them.”

Prior to her vote, Szakos called out the most vocal proponents on all sides of the water plan debate. She said the tenor of the debate was now inhibiting public participation.

“I’ll have to say that I’ve been very frustrated in this whole process … largely with folks on both sides, who are so vested in their own preferred outcomes that they have really provided slanted and incomplete data throughout this whole process,” said Szakos. “I’ll admit that the nastiness that I have heard from a few of the people in this discussion has been very disheartening, and it did more than anything the other side could do to make me unsympathetic toward their cause.”

“This has been going on for month after month after month after month, without a whole lot of new information,” Szakos added. “A democracy doesn’t mean that the most vocal people get their way, or that the people in the room are necessarily representative of the majority opinion in the community, and the facts that are repeated the most often and the most loudly are not necessarily the only facts.”

Next steps

Schnabel Engineering

has almost completed the final engineering on the design for the new earthen dam. The project is expected cost between $24.8 million and $28.4 million to complete. The cost sharing arrangement between the city and the

Albemarle County Service Authority

has yet to be finalized.


Rivanna Water and Sewer Authority

board meets on Thursday and will discuss the process for amending the state and federal water supply permits to accommodate the earthen dam design. It will also receive an update on the process to get bids for dredging the

South Fork Rivanna Reservoir


RWSA staff have also asked for direction on the new Ragged Mountain Dam’s phasing. The city and county have agreed on an initial pool height increase of at least 30 feet, but not whether the dam should be built all at once to its full height to support an additional 12 feet of water in the future.