University of Virginia favors building new earthen dam

By Brian Wheeler

Charlottesville Tomorrow

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

The University of Virginia has shared publicly for the first time its preference for how to resolve the contentious battle over a

long-term water plan

and thus address the school’s needs and those of Charlottesville and the urban areas of Albemarle County.

Leonard W. Sandridge, UVa’s executive vice president and chief operating officer

Leonard W. Sandridge

, UVa’s executive vice president and chief operating officer, told a gathering of neighborhood leaders Tuesday that the university favors building a new dam downstream of the existing

Lower Ragged Mountain Dam


“We believe the preferred solution is quite clear,” Sandridge said. “That involves increasing the capacity of the Ragged Mountain Reservoir by building a new dam, not by adding to the top of the old … dam that is there now.”

Listen using player above or download the podcast:

Download 20101207-UVA-Neighborhoods

The city of Charlottesville is continuing to

evaluate a proposal to build a concrete extension

on top of the 1908 dam and is waiting for its consultant, Black & Veatch, to provide a revised cost estimate later this month. Albemarle County continues to invest its own funds in the final engineering for a new earthen dam, the approach now known to be favored by the university, the city’s largest water customer.

Charlottesville Mayor

Dave Norris

said the community should wait for the next report from Black & Veatch before settling on an approach to a larger dam.

“I think it is awfully premature to reach any conclusions on the viability of the existing dam,” Norris said in an interview. “We need to have the actual data from Black & Veatch, and they are a very well-respected engineering firm.”

The 50-year water plan was originally approved by the City Council and Albemarle’s Board of Supervisors in 2006. The estimated $142 million plan includes building a taller dam at Ragged Mountain Reservoir, a new pipeline from the South Fork Rivanna Reservoir to Ragged Mountain and associated support infrastructure.

Since 2006, the water plan has turned into one of the most contentious public policy debates in regional history. The current focus of negotiations between the city and county relates to the design of the new dam.

“There have been a lot of studies and a lot of discussions, but no steps to remedy the basic problem,” Sandridge said. “By any measure this is a risk … for the university and a risk for the businesses that are in our community.”

Report raises more questions

On Monday, the Rivanna Water and Sewer Authority released the

written report from an independent technical review team

of dam experts. It identified 15 technical areas needing more study that it said could add to the cost of Black & Veatch’s August estimates for raising the reservoir by up to 45 feet by building on the existing dam.

Download indepdendent technical review team’s

November 23, 2010 report

The report suggests money spent “remediating” the old dam “would possibly be better spent constructing a new dam.”

The independent technical review team noted in its report that there “is considerable evidence in the records … indicating that the integrity of the 100-year-old existing cyclopean concrete dam is highly questionable and has been since first filling.”

City Councilor

David Brown

said in an interview that the city was continuing to review its options, the feedback from the dam experts and the ongoing analysis by Black & Veatch.

“If a big advantage of building on top of the old dam was saving money, well if that’s not going to be the case, then we need to take a hard look at the new dam,” Brown said.

[UVa] certainly have a stake in this, especially since they are expecting to grow significantly,” he added.

Sandridge also reflected with the neighborhood leaders on the 2002 drought, the community’s

worst drought on record

, and said that the university’s operations were challenged by the water shortage.

“At one point [in late 2002], we were being told that we might have to ask our students to go home before the end of the semester,” Sandridge said. “That is not a good solution for an institution that depends on completing its work on a semester system.”

UVa Architect David Neuman

UVa Architect

David Neuman

told the audience that the

university’s water usage was starting to increase again

after many years of implementing conservation measures.

“Our new dormitories, for example, are air conditioned, and that increases water use,” Neuman said. “It’s not the toilets and it’s not the sinks, it’s that the air conditioning system actually loses water as the chilling process occurs.”

Neuman noted that more than 25 percent of the university’s water usage is related to mechanical equipment.

Norris said the City Council would talk about the water plan at its next meeting, on Dec. 20, if Black & Veatch finalizes its revised estimate beforehand.

“We appreciate the university’s opinion. They are a major consumer of water, but in the grand scheme of things it is the ratepayers of Charlottesville I am most concerned with,” Norris said. “They don’t have billion-dollar endowments and I want to make sure we are coming up with the most cost-effective water solution.”