Activists continue to seek changes to local water plan while regulators review proposal for earthen dam

By Brian Wheeler

Charlottesville Tomorrow

Friday, April 15, 2011

Local officials in Charlottesville and Albemarle County reached a

compromise in February

and approved construction of at least the first phase of a new earthen dam for the

50-year community water supply plan

, but that hasn’t stopped those favoring other approaches from trying to put the brakes on what they see as a short-sighted decision.

While water activists gathered outside Charlottesville City Hall on Thursday to call for a moratorium on the earthen dam’s construction at the

Ragged Mountain Reservoir

, a supporter of the dam travelled to Richmond to lobby state officials to intervene and require an even larger dam be built.

“We believe that City Council’s recent … decision to build a 30-foot earthen dam at Ragged Mountain is environmentally and financially reckless,” said Joanna Salidis with

Citizens for a Sustainable Water Plan

. “Inadequate information, namely an inflated water demand estimate, and inaccurate estimates of dredging costs and returns has led to this decision.”

City and county officials recently endorsed building the first phase of the new earthen dam, which will raise the existing reservoir pool by 30 feet. An oversized foundation would support a future 12-foot increase if conditions indicate it is needed. The

Rivanna Water & Sewer Authority

has submitted a permit modification request to state and federal regulators to get final approval for this dam.

John Martin

, a county resident and former member of the

Albemarle County Service Authority

board of directors, said he wants the state to deny the permit changes. Martin said he spoke to the State Water Control Board in Richmond on Thursday seeking its support to get the earthen dam built all at once to its full height.

“The Albemarle Board of Supervisors and the service authority just gave up and agreed to this 30 foot pool and this is big trouble,” Martin said. “If there was ever a case for state-level intervention, coming in and talking to this community about common sense and what’s best for all the people, this is it.”

“We are giving up a 50-year plan and instead getting a 10- to 20-year plan,” Martin said. “It will have 640 million gallons less storage, missing 12 vertical feet, and we will be paying 99 percent of the costs of a full-height dam.”

Bill Haden, the Department of Environmental Quality’s director of public affairs, said in an email that the RWSA’s permit modification request was still under review. If the changes are deemed “major,” Haden said a public hearing would be required and the next regularly scheduled meeting of the State Water Control Board is not until Aug. 4-5.

“The permit modification request does not necessarily require a public hearing,” Haden wrote. “That will be determined when DEQ completes its review of the request. … If a public hearing is held, it will be convened by a member of the State Water Control Board, with DEQ staff in attendance.”

Citizens for a Sustainable Water Plan has started

an online petition

to lobby the City Council to reverse its decision endorsing the dam. Further, the group has written state and federal regulators to ask for the dam project to be stopped.

“We have asked that they suspend the permit pending reevaluation of new information, based on new studies that call into question [the need for the dam and pipeline],” said the group’s Rebecca Quinn. “At the very least, dredging must be put back on the table as an alternative.”

This year’s elections for three council seats now seems certain to feature the water plan controversy. At least one member of Citizens for a Sustainable Water Plan,

Bob Fenwic

k, has

already launched his campaign

. A second,

Dede Smith

, said Thursday that she was considering her own council run.

Council endorsed the earthen dam by a 3-2 vote Feb. 22


David Brown

, who supported the dam, and

Holly Edwards

, who voted against it, are both leaving the council at the end of 2011.

Satyendra Huja

is the only council incumbent seeking re-election and he joined with Brown and

Kristin Szakos

to support the dam compromise.

Negotiations are ongoing between Charlottesville and the ACSA regarding a water plan cost-sharing agreement. The dam is but one component of a water supply plan that is expected to cost as much as $140 million. A new pipeline is proposed be built from the

South Fork Rivanna Reservoir

to fill the enlarged reservoir at Ragged Mountain.

Also to be decided are the specific triggers that would set forth when a second phase would be built to raise the earthen dam to its full height. Martin thinks the triggers are one area that would benefit from a state mandate.

“In these circumstances, the city will never agree to a trigger since they already have agreement on their 30-foot dam,” Martin said. “Thus the only way we can be protected is if the DEQ itself sets a trigger to protect us and help avoid future controversies.”

Later this month, the RWSA board is scheduled to receive a report on

the costs to develop a request for proposals to dredge the South Fork

. Dredging is being examined as a separate project from the water plan. The costs and scope of dredging, and how it would be paid for, remain to be settled.