City Council backs off on demands for water supply studies; Councilors say they were responding to citizen concerns about costs
The four boards with jurisdiction over Charlottesville and Albemarle County’s public water resources have met to discuss City Council’s concerns about the cost of two major components of the adopted community water supply plan. In a resolution passed November 3, 2008,
Council called for a full review of the plan and its cost estimates
. That prompted the
Albemarle County Board of Supervisors
Albemarle County Service Authority
(ACSA) to seek a joint meeting to find out the nature of Council’s concerns. The Rivanna Water and Sewer Authority’s Board of Directors hosted the four-way meeting on November 25, 2008 in the CitySpace Meeting Room in the Market Street Parking Garage.
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Of the six studies
requested by City Council
, only three are expected to be conducted in a manner that may impact the current water supply plan, one of those studies requested was significantly scaled back and the other two studies were already in the works.
BACKGROUND INFORMATION SETS TONE FOR MEETING
Twenty-two officials gathered in front of about sixty observers in the CitySpace meeting room overlooking the Downtown Mall. Mike Gaffney, Chair of the RWSA, began the meeting by reminding those present that the adopted community water supply plan has cleared the regulatory hurdles to proceed with design and construction of both the expanded Ragged Mountain Reservoir as well as the South Fork Rivanna Pipeline. The Virginia Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ)
granted a permit in February 2008
, and the
U.S. Army Corps of Engineers followed suit in June
However, borings drilled at the site of the new dam
revealed that the bedrock on which the foundation would be laid was fractured
. Engineers with the firm Gannett Fleming concluded that would mean the foundation would have to be as much as 60 feet below the surface, whereas their preliminary design had assumed it would only need to be an average of 20 feet down. The additional work increased the cost estimate from an initial $37 million to a high end estimate of almost $99 million (in 2010 dollars with contingency funds). Gaffney said this was not an unusual situation.
“Other communities have faced similar challenges during the transition from conceptual design to more detailed design of a project this complex,” Gaffney said. He called City Council’s resolution noble, but said federal and state regulators have already examined other alternatives to the water supply plan. Gaffney said the goal of the meeting was to build on the success of the adopted plan, and warned against taking steps that could undermine the plan.
Before Council passed its resolution, the RWSA Board had already discussed a recommendation by RWSA Executive Director Tom Frederick to convene a panel of experts to discuss Gannett Fleming’s findings, as well as to consider a second opinion by the firm Schnabel Engineering. Schnabel’s interpretation of the data differs from Gannett Flemings and their engineers attached a cost estimate of $57 million for the Ragged Mountain Dam. According to Gaffney, RWSA staff had recommended the panel “to clarify design criteria that would optimize the costs.”
Gaffney said that RWSA staff have talked with top officials at national engineering firms, and estimate the full cost of Council’s requested studies to be in the range of $750,000 to $1 million. Gaffney said the objective of the four board’s meeting was to simplify the scope of work requested by Council to reduce costs while satisfying Council’s objectives.
COUNCIL’S CONCERN STEMS FROM CITIZEN PRESSURE
Charlottesville Mayor Dave Norris said the object of Council’s resolution was not to delay the project, but to satisfy the concerns of City residents who feel the cost of the adopted water supply is too expensive. He said that because the RWSA has stopped design work on the new Ragged Mountain Dam, the community had an opportunity to revisit the plan to see if it is the most environmentally friendly and economically responsible alternative.
“We need to reassure our taxpayers and ratepayers that [the South Fork] pipeline is at least sound in concept and preferential to the alternatives,” Norris said. He disputed Gaffney’s assertion that the studies requested by Council would cost up to $1 million, and later added that Council was not seeking a full engineering analysis. He said that the conservation study should cost no more than $50,000.
FOUR BOARDS TAKE UP COUNCIL’S CONCERNS
To start the discussion, Albemarle County Board of Supervisors Chairman
(Rivanna) said he thought most of the work Council had requested has been done before during the permitting process, with the exception of the dam review panel.
(Jack Jouett) asked Frederick if the scope of work for the panel of experts reviewing the dam could be expanded to include other studies requested by City Council so that exact costs of this research could be determined . Frederick said that if the studies were “properly constructed,” the RWSA could conduct them on a parallel track. Frederick said whether the panel was expanded would be up to the four boards, but that it would increase costs. Frederick said if limited to the dam, the panel of experts would likely cost between $150,000 and $300,000 to convene.
said he thought there was a natural connection between the review of the pipeline and the dam, and asked if Frederick thought the panel of dam experts could “look over the shoulder” of the conceptual design of the pipeline produced by Gannett Fleming. Frederick said there are experts who could address both issues, but added he did not want to limit the panel to people knowledgeable in both dam and pipeline construction.
Liz Palmer, a member of the ACSA Board of Directors (Samuel Miller), said extending the expert panel to the South Fork pipeline would be fruitless, given that there is no preliminary engineering complete on that concept. Norris acknowledged that concern, but said many City residents have “raised legitimate questions” about the feasibility of the pipeline. ACSA Chair Don Wagner (Rio) pressed Norris to name a specific question. Councilor David Brown answered by saying that many neighborhood associations have approached the Council with their concerns over the rising cost of the dam, but he said their information may have been based on incomplete news reports.
“A lot of the residents of Charlottesville are very concerned about whether we’ve gotten accurate estimates on the dam, and by extension, whether the estimates for the pipeline likewise are reasonable,” Brown said. Brown wanted to know if the rising cost of the dam is solely due to the fractured bedrock, or if other reasons contributed as well.
Frederick said in today’s economic climate, there are many variables that affect cost estimates for capital projects that will go to construction in the near-term future. He said the major factor in the Gannett Fleming estimate increase was due to Gannett Fleming’s decision to build a deeper foundation, but said rising fuel costs played a role as well.
Chairman Boyd said that dredging by itself would not solve the projected 50-year water demand, which requires a safe-yield of 18.7 million gallons a day by the year 2055. Frederick said two firms, Gannett Fleming and Hydrologics, have come up with similar numbers.
Frederick said when the community meetings were held to develop the water supply plan, it was decided that the community wanted a pipeline that would not carry sediment-laden water from the South Fork Rivanna Reservoir to the Ragged Mountain Reservoir. If the community now chooses to have a cheaper water supply system, said Frederick, the sediment-removal system that is now part of the conceptual plan could be eliminated resulting in a lower price tag.
ACSA Board Member John Martin (White Hall) asked Wagner’s question a second time.
“Does the City have a specific factual basis for the necessity for spending this additional money for these additional studies?”
Martin asked if local government should be “paralyzed” when some element of the community is concerned. “Mr. Norris seemed to indicate that part of the reasoning of the City Council was to reassure the public that we have the best plan here. It doesn’t matter what plan we have. There are going to be elements of the public that disagree with what government is doing.”
responded that he is concerned because of the increasing cost of the dam, and that the neighborhood associations have valid concerns. Supervisor Rooker said he could appreciate that concern, and said he supported getting another look at the cost estimates in case the price tag for the entire project doubles.
“In my view, we really don’t have much of a plan if all we do is expand Ragged Mountain Reservoir without addressing the pipeline issue,” Rooker said. “I’m not much in favor of waiting 10 years to go forward with the pipeline to the point where we find out what it costs and to make certain that it’s actually feasible.” Boyd said he was not sure how a realistic cost estimate could be made for a project that won’t begin for another decade.
Norris said that the adopted water supply plan has suffered from a lack of accuracy and specificity when it comes to costs.
“It dismayed us to see the inflation on the dam… With the pipeline itself, there’s concern about the fact that at least in some part it is premised on the construction of the Western Bypass [of US 29]…. The conservation goals set forth in this plan a lot of us feel are woefully inadequate. We’re talking about 5% reduction per capita in conservation and I believe that other communities have shown you can go much higher than 5%.”
Norris said he also objects to the adopted plan’s failure to acknowledge any water supply gains that might come through dredging the South Fork Rivanna Reservoir for non-water supply reasons.
“Why would we not choose to incorporate those into the plan and save money and save some acreage and thousands of trees at the Ragged Mountain Reservoir?” Norris asked. However, the Mayor said it was his opinion that the pipeline is getting a negative public reaction because apples-to-apples comparisons between the different pipeline options, including improvements to the existing 13 mile Sugar Hollow pipeline, have not been made. He said Council’s request is to make sure that comparison is done for the public’s benefit.
Councilor Brown asked Frederick if there were any truth to the rumor that the pipeline could not be built unless the western bypass is built. Frederick said the pipeline could be built without using the right of way for the bypass. He said the RWSA assumed it would be built on the fringe of the urban area, and that the bypass route would make sense as a candidate if the Virginia Department of Transportation eventually builds a road along that corridor.
CONSERVATION SUGGESTED AS A WAY TO LOWER DEMAND PROJECTIONS
Mike Gaffney suggested that because the RWSA only has two wholesale customers, a study of how conservation can reduce demand should be conducted by the City of Charlottesville and the ACSA. The results of those studies would then be communicated back to the RWSA to see if it would affect the demand portion of the permits granted by the DEQ and the Corps of Engineers. Norris said he didn’t mind who did the conservation study, as long as the community water supply plan is updated to reflect any new figures that emerge.
Supervisor Rooker wanted more information on how a change of the demand analysis would affect the existing permits. He said that when the plan was being crafted, he also challenged the population estimates that went into the demand analysis.
“But those arguments did not prevail when we all went through this and ultimately the plan was approved,” Rooker said. He questioned whether spending additional time and resources on a new analysis would actually produce a lower demand forecast.
Frederick said that is the community wanted to hire a consultant to identify ways to dramatically increase conservation, it could be done without affecting the existing process. However, he warned that the Council and Board should pursue with “a great deal of caution” when reviewing the demand assumptions that went into the permitting process.
“Regulatory agencies have to follow the rule-book of federal law and it may come into question whether with a smaller demand if the right project has been selected,” Frederick said. “There is a possibility they would require you to start all over again and go back through the alternatives process.”
Martin said he acknowledges that 5% is a conservative figure and that the community could likely do better. However he said for the purposes of water supply planning, it is better to go with the low figure.
“If you overestimate the amount of water conversation you can achieve, then you’re shorting yourself,” Martin said. “But if you are conservative and you conserve like you hope you could, then you’re going to have extra water supply. It would be irresponsible to plan water supply capacity on assumptions that the public will theoretically cooperate in the future and actually conserve.”
Liz Palmer said the “cornerstone of any conservation plan” would be to repair old infrastructure that is prone to leaks. She said hiring an outside consultant to study conservation would be a waste of money until the pipes are fixed.
“We’re doing . mapping, we’re buying monitoring equipment, we’re in the process of getting a lot of programs together to look into this,” Palmer said. She also reminded the Council that County residents will proportionally be paying more for the new components called for in the adopted water supply plan because that is where the growth will be. ACSA rates have risen by a higher percentage than City rates. Councilor Brown said that he felt that the City and County have recently weakened their power to conserve during droughts by altering the restrictions to allow for more uses during drought warnings.
(Rio) asked Norris if he would consent to the water plan moving forward without conducting a demand analysis. Norris said that he would prefer to adjust the water supply plan after a new demand analysis is conducted. Brown said he would like a new analysis to be conducted “promptly.”
The RWSA will officially ask the City and the ACSA to conduct a conservation study that will check to see if the two agencies are employing best practices. Norris said that Council was not prepared to make a decision until the conservation studies are conducted. Huja said he wanted to see the results of the conservation study to find out how much could be saved. Brown said he was leery of holding up the plan.
“I’m interested in learning how we can conserve more water, [but] I don’t see at this point a role for it in creating a new plan, a different plan than we have now,” said Brown.
County Executive Bob Tucker reminded the members of the four boards that the Department of Conservation and Recreation requires that the safety issues associated with the existing dams at Ragged Mountain be addressed by June 30, 2011. He said the project is already behind.
“Everything we do is delaying this deadline that we’re all facing right now,” Tucker said. Huja said Council was not trying to delay, and that the study of the pipeline could be concurrent.
“What we need is somebody that can look at all the information that’s in-hand now and give an objective analysis and reassure us that this is the best path forward,” Norris said. Boyd said he did not have a problem with that, but thought a study now might be too premature.
IS THE PIPELINE CONCEPT NOT VIABLE, OR JUST TOO EXPENSIVE?
Brown repeated that Council’s resolution came as a result of neighborhood associations and other groups who have pressured Council to reconsider the water supply plan. Brown is the only sitting City Councilor who was involved in approving the plan in 2006. “I think we have a responsibility to make sure that our residents have confidence in Gannett Fleming and confidence in the process that’s moving forward… We do need to have some experts come in, look over the shoulder of the work that’s been done involving the pipeline,” Brown said. The object of such a study would be to make sure that the cost estimate for the South Fork pipeline isn’t drastically under-estimated.
Liz Palmer asked if Council’s concern was over the viability of the pipeline, or its expense. Brown said he thinks the pipeline is viable, and he supports it. Councilor Satyendra Huja said he was concerned about the expense and needed someone else to look at it before he could make a decision. Palmer asked Huja if it would be helpful if someone from the RWSA met with Council to explain the 32 alternatives that were explored when the plan was built. Huja said that would not help him very much. Taliaferro said he was concerned about the cost as well. Palmer said that under any scenario, at least one pipeline is going to have to be built in order to fill Ragged Mountain.
Rooker said he also wanted to have a better cost estimate for the pipeline, but that the City Council resolution appeared to request an apples to apples comparison between the South Fork and Sugar Hollow pipelines. He questioned whether that was a useful goal given that a new pipeline from Sugar Hollow to Ragged Mountain would not satisfy many of the other objectives of the adopted plan.
Norris said the value in getting a study was not to provide Council with information on which to make a decision on how to proceed, but rather to reassure the public that the plan is sound. He said he personally felt the South Fork Pipeline is preferable.
“I’m convinced that [the South Fork Rivanna Pipeline] makes more sense than the Sugar Hollow pipeline,” Norris said. “But there’s a lot of distrust among the public that we’re hearing regularly… I happen to think that the basic parameters of the plan are sound, but they’re not convinced.”
Rooker asked Frederick to comment on whether it would be viable to replace the over eighty-year old Sugar Hollow pipeline to continue filling Ragged Mountain that way. Frederick said that a new 18” pipeline from Sugar Hollow could only pump 4 MGD a day to Ragged Mountain, which might not be enough to fuel the Observatory water treatment plant to meet demand in 2055. He also said the permits granted for the adopted plan require specific stream flows to be restored to the Moormans and South Fork Rivanna rivers. He said the permits would have to be modified.
Gaffney said it would make more sense to have a separate engineering firm conduct the pipeline study, separate from the dam expert panel. Gary Fern, Executive Director of the ACSA, suggested having an engineer come in to review the methodologies that went into the development of the concept, but to limit the scope of the review in order to keep the study costs low. Frederick said that could be done relatively cheaply and before the panel of dam experts concludes their work. However, he said an apples to apples comparison would be more involved because it would open up questions of whether the new plan would allow the RWSA to meet its safe yield requirements. Norris said that what the public needs is to be told what the advantages and disadvantages are between the two pipeline alternatives. Palmer suggested that information is already available. Norris questioned whether the information was accurate.
In the end, the four boards agreed to direct the RWSA to spend up to $25,000 to hire an engineering firm to review the general South Fork Pipeline concept. The firm’s task will be to provide an opinion on whether cost estimate for the pipeline is within a “reasonable range” according to Dennis Rooker. The task force will report during a meeting of the chairs of the four boards, after which a decision will be made whether or not to proceed with a feasibility study.
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