What happens when you take the Mayor, the Chairman of the Board of
Supervisors, put them in a room of about 50 Democrats, then add water? 
It quickly reaches the boiling point.  That was the outcome of the
February 21, 2009 Democratic Breakfast when

Mayor Dave Norris


Supervisor David Slutzky (Rio)

squared off on the water supply plan.  They
were joined in the panel discussion by

Liz Palmer

, a Board member of
the Albemarle County Service Authority (ACSA).  Norris, used the event
to announce his latest water plan proposal which calls for repairing
and enlarging the existing Ragged Mountain Dam, built in 1908, as an
alternative to building a new, much taller, dam at the same location.

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The panel began with Palmer providing background on the history of the current urban water supply system and the key components of the proposed 50-year community water supply plan.  Norris, Slutzky and Palmer actually all agree on the basic plan concept which was approved unanimously by City Council and the Board of Supervisors in 2006.

The broad agreement on these topics, however, was not what led to the heat in the debate.  Norris acknowledged that the water plan was an issue that had divided environmentalists in the community.  “This is a difficult issue,” said Norris, “because there are smart well-intentioned, well-reasoned environmentalists on both sides of this issue in pretty substantial numbers.”

Supervisor David Slutzky (Left) and Mayor Dave Norris (Right)

The key areas lacking consensus relate to: the calculations about how much water the community’s growing population will need in 50 years; assessments of the community’s ability to conserve more water; whether the regulators who issue permits for the water supply plan will agree to changing conservation or population assumptions; the appropriate design size and costs of an expanded Ragged Mountain Dam and new pipeline; and the role of dredging the South Fork Rivanna Reservoir in the plan.

After listening to an hour of the discussion, City resident Lloyd Snook raised the white flag.  “I don’t know what the hell you all are talking about,” said Snook ending a debate between Palmer and Slutzky on the panel and opponents of the adopted water supply plan in the audience, including former City Councilor Kevin Lynch.  “You are arguing back and forth, using terms that the rest of us don’t know and don’t understand, and for those of us that were hoping to have some enlightenment, what we have is heat and not light.”

Elements of the “Norris Plan” summarized at the breakfast, including raising the existing Ragged Mountain Dam by thirteen feet and doing dredging at South Fork, come from alternatives also backed by Citizens for a Sustainable Water Plan and dismissed previously as infeasible or insufficient to meet projected water needs by other local officials.

The four parts of the current Norris Plan include:

For months, Mayor Norris has led Council’s effort to try and require new studies of conservation, water demand projections, dredging, dam design, and pipeline designs, all before any construction starts on the Ragged Mountain Dam.

Late last year when Council passed a resolution

directing the Rivanna Water and Sewer Authority (RWSA) to conduct a full re-evaluation of the water plan, it led to a rare

“four boards” joint meeting on November 25, 2008

at which City Council backed off on most of its demands at the time.  Of the six studies requested by Council, only three are expected to be conducted in a way that may impact the plan.  One of those three studies was significantly scaled back while the other two were effectively already getting started.

Then at a Council meeting in December

, Norris sought to add additional requirements into a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) which was intended to simply summarize the next steps from the “four boards” meeting.  As a result of the City’s modifications, that MOU has been

officially set aside by the Albemarle County Service Authority which refused to adopt it


Norris continues to advocate for revisiting the 50-year water supply demand assumptions and for new conservation studies despite warnings from Tom Frederick, RWSA’s Executive Director, that regulatory agencies who have already approved the water plan’s permits may, as a result of these new studies, require the community to start a multi-year water planning process all over again.  Time, Frederick fears, is not on his side when it comes to supplying the community with sufficient water should we enter another drought or have a catastrophic failure of a deteriorating pipeline or dam.

In his remarks, Supervisor David Slutzky questioned whether water conservation strategies could be the basis for scaling back the community’s projected water needs.  He said he didn’t think a decision needed to be made immediately about dredging the South Fork because doing so doesn’t provide enough new water capacity for the next 50 years.  Slutzky said he was open to discussing dredging options, but that he did have concerns about the ongoing impacts on the quality of life of those living around and using the reservoir resulting from the noise of the dredging equipment.

“The biggest concern that I have for all of this though, I’ve got to tell you, is the concern of uncertainty,” said Slutzky. “We’ve got a water supply number, how many gallons we will need based on…our estimation of how many gallons people are gonna likely use based on hard to predict behaviors in the future, and based on some assumptions on demographics…”

Slutzky said he supports the current water supply plan as the best long range plan for the community given the uncertainties around population growth and the location where new residents will decide to live.  Slutzky said that if Albemarle is successful channeling more of its growth into the designated growth areas over the next 50 years, then a lot more residents than previously projected could be on the urban water supply.  Slutzky said he would rather address the community’s long term needs now rather than restart the search for more water in 20-30 years.

Charlottesville Tomorrow asked Mayor Norris how much water his plan would supply for the community in fifty years.  He said he did not have it broken down from that perspective, and that instead he was approaching the problem from the demand side.  “If we get more aggressive with conservation, we should be able to reduce the long term demand projections,” said Norris.  The money saved from a smaller project at Ragged Mountain, Norris argues, could be channeled into dredging, sedimentation prevention, and a bigger pipe connecting the reservoirs.

Norris said he accepts the population estimates in the current plan.  When pressed about what targeted water supply demand his plan could satisfy, Norris said he was convinced that the water conservation study currently underway by the City and the ACSA would help identify a revised 50-year water supply goal.

“If these other things line up, and they are demonstrably more cost-effective and feasible, then why would we not chose that course,” said Norris. “Unless, and this is a big ‘unless,’ you believe as Mr. Slutzky does, that we need to assume a much greater demand than we are currently assuming, and be prepared for a much greater demand in the future.”

The next steps for the water supply plan will be discussed at two upcoming meetings.  On Monday, the Rivanna Water and Sewer Authority Board is expected to take action to convene an expert panel to assess the geotechnical data, engineering design, and projected costs of the larger Ragged Mountain Dam proposed in the current water plan.  On March 3, 2009, the “four boards” will convene again (City Council, Board of Supervisors, ACSA, RWSA), this time to receive the

final report from the South Fork Reservoir Stewardship Task Force


Brian Wheeler


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