Saturday, September 27, 2008

Water Supply Challenge

One of the difficulties of the water supply debate we've been having over the last year is that no one has offered up an objective comparison of the "adopted" plan vs. the alternative scenario offered up by Citizens for a Sustainable Water Plan. With all the good journalists and scholars in town, perhaps someone will take up this challenge -- I believe it would go a long way toward clarifying the issues and choices at hand for the general public. One problem, of course, will be to produce the best possible cost estimates (or, rather, range of estimates) for the various components of both plans, in as unimpeachable a manner as possible -- i.e., not taking for granted the cost estimates provided by either plan's authors. This will not be an easy task.

Here's one thing that we know for sure that such a comparison will demonstrate: of the four overarching (and quite divergent) goals that came to guide the work of the community water supply planning process back in 2004-06 -- meet the anticipated 50-year demand, make needed repairs/upgrades to aging infrastructure, stay in our watershed, and restore the "natural" flow of the Moormans River -- only the officially adopted plan even tries to accomplish all four. The authors of the alternative plan argue that we can make sufficient progress on each of these fronts while staying 100% within our watershed and saving a good deal of money in the process. They question the 50-year demand projections (as do I) and they are more optimistic than many of us about our ability to get a whole lot more mileage out of our existing water infrastructure (like the Sugar Hollow pipeline) before major upgrades are necessary. On the Moormans River, they agree that the Moormans needs more water but they do not agree that restoring the "natural" balance of this large aquatic ecosystem is worth the substantial costs -- financial and otherwise -- that the adopted plan entails. More than any other variable in these competing plans, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that this last subject is the most important substantive area of divergence between the two camps. (I wish it were as simple as dredging vs. not dredging. That would make our lives a whole lot easier. But it's not.) You hear very little about the Moormans in the current media reports on this topic, yet this particular issue was front and center in the contemporaneous media reports (see, for example, here [scroll down to "So Simple, It Just Might Work: Do We Finally Have a Water Supply Plan?"], or here) from when the adopted water supply solution was originally hatched. The 'Moormans factor' also tellingly explains why so many environmentalists continue to support the adopted plan, to the enormous consternation of those who are trying their best to frame the adopted plan as an environmental trainwreck.

But don't take my word on any of this -- let's get a side-by-side, warts-and-all comparison of the costs and anticipated outcomes of both plans, done by a neutral third party, and you can see for yourselves. Any takers?


Anonymous said...


I think we have to consider the possibility that the current economic emergency will be a game changer as regards this debate. The current plan -- in which the environmental principles were agreed upon independent of any (realistic) cost analysis -- may be attractive for what it offers in terms of restoration of the Moorman's. But with a a fiscal nightmare of global proportions unspooling before our eyes, we have to think hard before we take on $200 million? $300 million? in debt to take care of emergency water needs.

Let me repeat that. EMERGENCY WATER NEEDS. We have plenty for day to day purposes. We do not currently face a water crisis. So yeah, we need to think hard and move prudently, sspecially when we know that our citizens are likely to suffer tremendously in the new economic environment.

Only consider: the go-go growth in the real estate sector, the economic and population growth estimates, the continued positive growth in tax base that the indicators pointed to--all those economic assumptions underlying the current plan are now out the window. Can we afford such an enormous infrastructure investment when we know that our aging population and our middle class face real hardship in the near term? Wouldn't it be prudent for us to look for ways to meet our short-term emergency needs by other means?

While I think the idea of a side by side comparison of the RWSA/CSWS plans has merit, what has a lot MORE merit in my eyes is a REALITY-BASED accounting of the costs of the one that's currently on the table, PLUS some general principles indicating the responsible parties and the mechanisms for bearing the costs.

Such an accounting would include but not be limited to:

The engineering costs of the new reservoir.
The costs of the pipeline, both engineering and construction.
The proposed route of the pipeline and the costs of acquiring right of way.
The costs of the I-64 embankment stabilization.
The OPERATING costs of the pipeline, including the electrical, gas, or chemical costs.
The MAINTENANCE costs--failure to build in maintenance got us where we are in the first place.
The costs of dredging and the returns that might be realized by coordinating dredging with, say, expansion of the airport.

As for how we'll pay for it, tell me--please--what's the plan?

What's the split between city and county ratepayers?

What's the split between present and future ratepayers?

Are we floating bonds to pay for part of it? And what are the consequences of that move? Can we even SELL municipal bonds in such an crazy environment....?

It's possible that YOU know the answers to all these questions, but you haven't rolled them out to the public yet.

Yeah, of course, we need 50-year plan, but do we need all 50 years worth of stuff in the next 10 years? And given the long-term economic forecast, would it be prudent or bat-shit crazy of us to plunge in without as many answers as possible?

My personal take is that Rivanna and its environmental allies have fallen into the classic American trap of "let's build a big huge state-of-the-art project and meet all our needs and all our goals! Because guess what--this is the can-do spirit that built the railroads...!"

But to me, unless this massive project is going to be the equivalent of a city-county CCC--and employ vast numbers of people and help to stabilize the local economy from the bottom up--then I think we need to be looking at a group of smaller, cheaper solutions with long-term implications. $200 million buys a lot of affordable housing, a lot of school reform, a lot of economic development. Not to mention green roofs and cisterns for every building in the city-county, innovative stormwater and even wastewater solutions...

I don't know if any of this is plausible. I do know we haven't even asked the questions yet because we've been locked in defending our respective positions.

So yeah! Bag the side by side comparison. Let's get some real figures on the current plan... ALL COMPONENTS OF THE CURRENT PLAN.

Yer pal,

DaveNorris said...

Excellent post Kendra, thanks. All good questions, some of them have been answered elsewhere but I agree they all need to be addressed openly. I disagree with the idea of "bagging" a side-by-side analysis, though, as there are just as many questions to be asked of the "competing" plan, which has received even less of a vetting than the one that's on the table. An honest, "reality-based" comparison of the two plans, one that addresses all of the cost factors and need projections and other implications you've helpfully spelled out here, would only serve to enrich the public discourse on this matter. Thanks again, Dave

Kevin Lynch said...


I think that doing an objective comparison of the "adopted" plan vs the Citizen's alternative plan is an excellent idea. But before doing that, you all need to do a reality check on the costs of the current plan. You don’t need to hire consultants to start doing this. You just need to read the memo that Tom gave the Rivanna board on Monday. It is quite clear from the memo that the new 70M figure quoted in the press release is only a part of the new dam costs. The total cost will be well over 90M and could easily exceed 100M – not including the pipeline, which Tom now admits cant be built in its proposed location without the 29 bypass. Tom also made it quite clear on Monday that there is no “Plan B” for the pipeline. Its all just a “concept” now, so in theory it could exist anywhere and no specific alignment need be studied for feasibility. Right!! If you believe that, I’ve got an empty dam I’d like to sell. Oops, someone beat me to it.

It is clear from the memo that Gannett Fleming is having second thoughts about the RMR being the best option now. They clearly state in the memo that the pipeline should be re-evaluated before moving forward with RMR. They also recommended four other options for moving forward, including evaluating a lower dam and dredging in combination. However, none of these recommended options were even discussed on Monday. It was obvious from the Rivanna board discussion (which lasted all of 10 minutes) that none of them had read the memo over the weekend. Most of their questions were about composition and charge of the so called "panel of experts" that will be hired to advise them on what to do about the information that they were given – there were no questions about the substantive issues raised in the document itself.

Some of the "cost saving" ideas that Schanabel came up with are highly questionable and may run into some trouble with regulators and public. For example, does the community really want to open a new gravel quarry somewhere in the natural area near the dam to save on the cost of trucking the aggregate from an existing quarry? Has anyone run that one by the neighbors, regulators and environmentalists yet? And their scheme for saving 2M on cofferdams and foundation dewatering by lowering the reservoir to absorb a 25 year storm sounds mighty risky to me. In addition to decreasing safe yield during construction, what if we get a 50 or 100 year storm while the foundations are being poured? Sure the chance is probably low but the cost is high if it happens. These guys are already pressing their luck, do you really want to add more risk to this project? No need for a high contingency on bonds and insurance cost? My guess is that if the insurers know that the original engineering firm was sacked because their estimates were too high, and that a firm that originally lost the design bid got it back with a 9th inning lowball, they are going to put a huge risk premium on this project.

I cant really speak to the engineering behind Shanabel's plan to grout the fractured rock instead of removing or concrete facing it, but given some of the other assumptions they made it appears that they were asked to present as much of a best case scenario as possible. Having been burned on the Big Dig, Gannett Fleming may be a little more gun shy now about trying to shave costs by using putty instead of concrete

The bottom line is that RWSA appears to be headed for a huge water price increase to pay for a dam that will be a lot riskier than originally envisioned and which, without the pipeline (which is another under-designed and under-budgeted project) will only supply 2.5mgd of the 9.9mgd that Rivanna says we need for the next fifty years. Compare that to the 5.5mgd provided by dredging, which is a much less costly, less risky and less environmentally damaging option.

Its also important to understand that the "adopted" plan does not restore the natural flow to the Moormans at all. It provides a theme park flow. The Sugar Hollow dam will continue to hold back the naturally high flows during storms and will release this water to augment the flow during times when the Moormans would naturally be dry. It might make for better trout fishing and pretty pictures that TNC can put in their fundraising letters, but it is not natural by a long shot. And it is taking our cleanest source of water, which the Department of Health has advised us not to give up, and mixing this water with all sorts of agricultural waste before we drink it.


Anonymous said...

Hmmm... and how does one get a gravel quarry in the first place? Does it involve... blowing up hillsides?

Anonymous said...

Damn, and I thought Sarah Palin was in way over her head! Seems to be epidemic these days, and the Republicans clearly don't have a monopoly on it.

BudgetHawk said...

Since we’re still debating basics, should Buck Mountain be reexamined? -- At $150M+ budget, is there no way to build this dam, protect the mussels, and still save money? The Internet has examples for mussel relocation and expansion to allow for bridge replacements (Rachel Mair, US Fish & Wildlife, has not returned my call.) Maybe we could spend $10M to build a mussel reserve. Anyway, has this option been fully vetted now that we know more about our costs?

According to news sources and a former RWSA board member Buck Mountain;
was the original water plan,
has better water quality,
is less expensive and,
the land has already been purchased.

Still requires the building of a new dam and pipeline.
Has not been approved by federal and state regulators.
Was quickly dropped due to the required conservation of the fresh water mussel.

Leslie Middleton said...


Thank you for your reasoned and thoughtful assessment of the situation we are in with respect the water supply plan. I, for one, am deeply saddened by the rhetoric that has emerged increasingly over the last five months, especially well put by Cville Weekly in the title of this week's water update: Water supply might not be limitless, but the nagging, "'I told you so"s are."

Given the track record of inflammatory journalism and the possibility that the actually process of outlining the "objective comparison" could bring people together rather than just offer another opportunity for challenge and controversy, I suggest that we should be looking at a process that involves the very people and parties that are so polarized at this point in time. I doubt there is a trusted 3rd party who can ferret out all the details that would result in a true apples-to-apples comparison, but a team of forward-looking and well-intentioned individuals given access to the resources and appropriate expertise might be able to do so. If led by a creative and neutral party, the discussion and emerging result could really be a win-win.

This might sound a lot like the SFRR Task Force, but it's task would be very different: It's charge would be to identify all the components of a 50 year water supply plan (so it could double as outline of "the plan" that is required by the state), and in so doing, would also articulate a near-term plan for dealing with aging infrastructure such as the RM dam itself and the environmental challenges of maintaining adequate in-stream flows to the Mormons, while increasing our long term safe yield and accounting for a healthy conservation rate.

The present Task Force is not charged with, nor has the appropriate representation or even expertise for, evaluating water supply plans. However, if allowed to do its work without the onus of being a referendum on the RM-pipeline plan, it will yield good information about how best to obtain relevant costs for maintaining/dredging the South Fork of the Rivanna to maintain it as a component of the permitted -- or any other -- plan.

One of the things that I am very uncomfortable with is that intelligent citizens -- after studying some of the many documents RWSA & contractor documents -- feel qualified to draft new and better options, which has led to offerings of plans that are not grounded in the science and practice of water management. It seems essential that if there were one journalist out there to draft a "comparison," as you suggest, that person would have to have experience in water supply and management systems AND understand how our existing system is built and operated with respect to safety and efficiency of delivery. Sounds like RWSA staff, plus perhaps a well-chosen consultant, needs to be heavily involved.

Leslie Middleton

Joe Mooney said...


I think you are going in exactly the right direction in calling for an independent objective assessment of the various water supply plan proposals, including attention to the streams and rivers of the Moormans, Mechums, and Rivanna watershed areas. Given, however, the notable reluctance of the Rivanna Water and Sewer Authority to conduct the much needed technical surveys of the Rivanna Reservoir in order to obtain such objective feasibility and cost estimates for dredging, RWSA is unlikely to pursue this recommendation. The Nature Conservancy, given its clear conflict of interest in the issue, is also an unlikely sponsor. Asking our group, Citizens for a Sustainable Water Supply, to provide such an assessment is asking that a small number of concerned, amateur, unpaid citizens go up against organizations with millions of dollars at their disposal, and dozens of well-paid staff members lobbying for their interests; this is simply unfair.

Here's a challenge for you as Mayor to lead City Council in initiating and funding the following proposal:

"The City of Charlottesville, in order to protect the best interests of local citizens, shall contract with an experienced and recognized independent consulting firm with proven expertise in the field of watershed and water supply system management, to recommend a comprehensive integrated plan to expand our water storage and water supply systems. This would include plans to restore and protect against degradation all of our existing reservoirs, and to expand them as deemed necessary. Modern watershed management and erosion control techniques should be included to restore and protect the watershed areas of the Moormans, Mechums, and Rivanna Rivers, and to restore as much as possible, normal stream flow in these valuable waters. Recommendations for conservation measures must be an integral part of such a plan, and reliable cost estimates should be provided for the various components of the over-all proposal."

It is interesting that RWSA is spending millions of dollars planning for a dam, and the best they have done to study dredging is to appoint a citizen task force to define why it might be done. Curious indeed.


Leslie Middleton said...

Joe, (and others)

I agree that the state of the economy provides us all an opportunity to stand back and re-look the costs of all our infrastructure needs -- and to help guide our elected officials in the tough work of balancing them with the social needs of our community.

I am also very pleased to see that the SFRR is getting the attention that it deserves. I thank you, and the others in Citizens for Sustainable Water Supply, for bringing this issue to light and for spending the time and resources I know that it takes to participate in any such public inquiry.

I do not see the creation of the SFRR Task Force as a delaying tactic or an avoidance of any of the issues at hand, least of all the need to conduct dredging feasibility studies.

We've now heard from two very different kinds of experts that it is essential to know why you want to dredge before undertaking even the feasibility study. Gahagen-Bryant cautioned this community during its May 2008 presentation that before doing any dredging cost and feasibility study, one has to be able to answer the question, "Why dredge?"

This last Monday night, Stephen Bowler (of FERC, formerly with Albemarle County) told the Task Force that any technical analysis of the SFRR -- whether it be bottom characterization by sonar or hydraulic modeling (or some combination of the two along with use of available historic data)-- needs to be guided by collective and agreed upon outcomes (i.e. desired uses) so that future maintenance of the SFRR may be analyzed, planned, and undertaken in the most cost effective manner.

The SFRR Task Force -- if allowed to focus on the work it was charged to do -- will provide some of the necessary input to this feasibility study.

And it seems to me that the present strategy of pursuing the existing approved and permitted plan in parallel with the work of the Task Force could be viewed as the smart way of tackling a complex problem, as is RWSA's plan to convene an expert panel to assess the new geotechnical information.

What if RWSA had put a stop work order to Gannett-Fleming back in May ... would we have known that the substrate beneath the proposed dam is in question?

At the same time, though rowers and fishermen knew there was a problem with a weed in the reservoir, the work of the Task Force has brought general knowledge of the existence of hydrilla (a persistent invasive) in the reservoir - as well as, unfortunately, other places in the watershed.

This is a time that our community needs to come together -- but it will only get harder the more that our water management and conservation professionals and activists continue to get battered for their poor judgment, "special interests," and (lack of) expertise.

And please remember that the Task Force was convened, appointed, and charged with its task by City and County elected officials, not by RWSA.

I look forward to future public and reasoned conversations on this matter and thank Dave Norris for encouraging the discussion.