Soundbite Water Politics

By. Neil Williamson

The discussion of the approved and permitted community water supply proposal is getting a great deal of ink lately.  I was appalled last week when, not one, but three members of the group Citizens for a Sustainable Water Supply argued again that the James River Spiny Mussel, an endangered species, had never been documented in the area once destined for the Buck Mountain Reservoir.  Jeff Werner of the Piedmont Environmental Council  suggested the community water supply plan was being “swift-boated” by opponents selectively using facts to make political points.  Charlottesville Tomorrow has the report and podcast from November 12th Albemarle County Board of Supervisors meeting.

By playing fast and loose with the facts, CSWS has created many great soundbites.  As is often the case,  reality is much more complex than their soundbites suggest. 

For many months, one member of CSWS has been using the example of dredged material use on Philadelphia’s airport as justification for such an approach here in Charlottesville.  A great sound bite but reality, as expressed by Airport Executive Director Barbara Hutchison, is much more complex.  Sean Tubbs of Charlottesville Tomorrow has the podcast and reports:

Hutchison also addressed a suggestion made by Joe Mooney, a member of Citizens for a Sustainable Water Plan, that the Charlottesville-Albemarle Airport could follow an example set by the Philadelphia International Airport. That facility used dredged material from the Delaware River to build an extension, and Mooney has cited it frequently over the past year. Hutchison said an “apples to apples” comparison between the two airports could not be made for several reasons:

  • Dredging is constantly being done in the Delaware River to keep navigational channels clear
  • Composition of dredged material (gravel and rocks) is known because of ongoing dredging
  • The Philadelphia International Airport is built on the Delaware River
  • The City of Philadelphia paid for the dredged material, not the airport

“While we would like to be a player, we wouldn’t recommend [the Task Force] make decisions based on our projects because we don’t know when or if [the runway extension project] will receive full funding from the state and the FAA,” Hutchison said. “We’ve never been opposed, we just don’t have the information to be able to intelligently say if we could participate

As is usually the case the reality of the situation is much more complex than a simple soundbite.  The Free Enterprise Forum believes in informed public discussion.  Throughout the community water supply discussion, Rivanna Water and Sewer Authority has very open and public. 

Faced with emerging engineering and cost challenges of the Ragged Mountain Dam Project, RWSA chose to go forward publicly and explain the rather complex design disagreement between two nationally respected engineering consultants.  While a nuanced soundbite may have been better received, the complexity of the issue required an extensive explanation.  The fact that it was a very public explanation is further evidence of RWSA’s commitment to community involvement. 

The Free Enterprise Forum believes the use of aggressive soundbite politics, such as when a member of CSWS on Monday called for Charlottesville City Council to “stick to your guns”, only polarizes the community and does not add positively to the discussion. 

While we may have different views on how the community should solve its water supply issue, it is important that as a community we use facts to build support these positions.  The selective use of facts, aggressive baiting of officials and questioning of the existence of the James River Spiny mussel is taking the community backwards.


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