Community Water Supply

On Sunday (1/4/09), the Daily Progress ran an editorial I wrote regarding the Community Water Supply Project.  Opposite my editorial, Richard Collins wrote a piece regarding dredging the Rivanna Reservior.  As of this writing neither of these pieces are available online.

Below is a longer version of the Op-ed that appeared in The Progress on Sunday:

A Community Water Supply


By. Neil Williamson, Free Enterprise Forum


A vocal minority is raising questions about the Ragged Mountain Water Supply plan by perpetuating myths, promoting old cost estimates rather than current dollars, selecting statements out of context, raising alternatives that were eliminated through well-documented vetting process years ago and, most deplorably, questioning the integrity of individuals and firms engaged in the process.  Unfortunately, some in the community are considering this conjecture as fact and accepting it hook, line and sinker.


To be clear, serious cost issues have emerged with the Ragged Mountain Dam project.  This is not an argument to boldly move forward without examining these cost issues, rather it is a call to examine some of the detailed “facts” as presented by the Citizens for a Sustainable Water Supply (CSWS) within the context of the history of the project.


The roots of the Ragged Mountain water supply plan can be traced back thirty years.  The Rivanna Water and Sewer Authority (RWSA) first received word of safety concerns regarding the dam at Ragged Mountain.  Much has changed since 1979, but the safety issues at Ragged Mountain, when Jimmy Carter was in the White House, still have not been fully addressed.


Today, the RWSA has an approved Community Water Supply project designed and permitted to provide adequate safe water supply for the next fifty years. RWSA is in the process of answering a few significant engineering (and cost) challenges that must be addressed before refining the specifications and preparing the project for bid. 


The project would build a new dam at Ragged Mountain and link the expanded reservoir and the South Fork Rivanna Reservoir with a pipeline.  The project would allow RWSA to take the aging Sugar Hollow pipeline out of commission and, importantly for environmental considerations, return flow to the Moormans River.


By creating this unique Community Water Supply Project that linked the health of the Moormans River, the safety issues of Ragged Mountain Dam and the locally desired concept of staying within the local watershed while still satisfying the fifty year water supply goal, the project received widespread support from the public.  At the final public input session in October 2005 attending citizens voiced support 26 – 1 in favor of the Ragged Mountain alternative, and in May 2006, the four local boards (Charlottesville City Council, Albemarle County Board of Supervisors, and the Boards of Directors of the Albemarle County Service Authority and the Rivanna Water and Sewer Authority) voted a combined 22-0 in favor of Ragged Mountain.[1]


In 2003, I was very clear in stating no position on a preferred alternative.  Instead, I chose to stand with many others in evaluating each of potential solutions against the Demand Analysis that had been provided by the consultant team.  The demand projection was established and supported by three different studies[2].  This was an important first step in the discussion – “Don’t Move The Goal Posts”.


I believe, and still believe, in building the “most practicable solution with the least environmental impacts that solves the need”.  At the time of alternative review, some in the media suggested this indicated a preference for a pipeline to the James River (one of the final four candidates).  The reality was that The Free Enterprise Forum maintained an open mind to any “actionable solution that met the community need.”


While RWSA was evaluating the four finalist alternatives, a group of citizens (including many now leading the CSWS) organized around their desire to “keep our water local”.  To their credit, RWSA recognized this as a community desire and evaluated the proposals under that light. 


Based on discussions with several sources,  the regulators believed two (of the four) short list proposals could be permitted.  The first, the Ragged Mountain solution, has received the needed permits from the various permitting agencies.  The second, a pipeline from the James River, has been permitted for Louisa and Fluvanna County (albeit using a different intake location than the one associated with our Community Water Supply project review). 


In addition to questioning the demand metric, prominent members of this group have questioned the transparency of the process, despite their attendance at many of the public input meetings and board updates.  Three prominent CSWS members (including a former chair of the RWSA) have publicly challenged the documentation of the existence of the James Spinymussel in the Buck Mountain area.


In December, Jeff Werner of the Piedmont Environmental Council presented a report to the Albemarle County Board of Supervisors using water supply study documents, the permit application and other research material to debunk many of the facts presented by those in and around the CSWS group.  The report provides clear documentation regarding the source for each data point. 


Regarding Buck Mountain as an option, the PEC Report uncovered five key issues that precluded the Buck Mountain Reservoir concept from moving forward:


  • Inundation of 306 acres
  • 34,600 ft transmission line
  • 59 acres of wetland inundated
  • James Spinymussel
  • 40,000 liner feet of stream impacted.[3]


The CSWSP worst case plan (the only plan that meets the projected water demand needs) includes increasing the reservoir height by 13 feet.  The major cost in constructing any dam is creating the foundation that will be designed to hold the wall of water; inversely the largest portion of water per foot is held by the highest point in the dam (due to larger surface area).  Once the foundation costs are in place the cost savings of lowering the dam height are minimal.


As a part of their analysis of the preferred alternatives, the 2006 Rivanna Water and Sewer Authority Permit Supply Document prepared by Gannett Fleming determined “the environmental effects of the James River Intake and Pipeline concept and the Raising Ragged Mountain Reservoir and Pipeline concept are both relatively low …Both concepts also appear to be feasible after consideration of cost and logistics[4]


The Permit Supply document concluded “Based on the substantial uncertainties that cannot be resolved, also on the magnitude of the costs and logistical difficulties as compared to the other core concepts, dredging of the South Fork Rivanna Reservoir is not a preferred water supply option, as it is not practicable and cannot be made practicable and least environmentally damaging through combination with another water supply concept.”[5]


While I eagerly await the outcome of the expert panel charged with evaluating the two competing engineering analyses, I remain committed to a community water supply project that answers the stated goal of 18.7 million gallons a day in the least environmentally damaging, most practicable way possible. 


If, however, the community wishes to reopen the dialog regarding the community water supply sources, it would be bad government to ignore the vast potential for regional cooperation and cost sharing opportunities with our neighboring localities (Fluvanna and Louisa) who have received a permit to draw from the James River.


Finally, this community is blessed to have passionate advocates with great knowledge.  While most in the region treat others with respect, those associated with CSWS have repeatedly, without cause, questioned the integrity of just about everyone involved in this process.  This is deplorable and must stop.  Citizens in this community are proud of our ability to disagree without being disagreeable. 


If the CSWS, or anyone else, has proof regarding a conflict of interest or other improper relationship/action, it is in our community’s  interest that those facts, and documentation, come forward.  If no such proof exists, the emotional rhetoric needs to be ratcheted down and the focus of the discussion should be on the facts and not unsubstantiated personal attacks.


Neil Williamson is the President of The Free Enterprise Forum, a public policy organization located in Albemarle County.


[1] Frederick, Thomas, November 19, 2007 memo to The Honorable Mayor and Charlottesville City Council

[2] Werner, Jeff December 1 Report to Albemarle County Board of Supervisors

[3] Ibid

[4] Rivanna Water and Sewer Authority, June 30, 2006 Permit Supply Document page 46-47

[5] ibid page 48



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