Thursday, January 03, 2008

2007: Year of the Non-Drought

Charlottesville, Virginia—For the third time since the Rivanna Water and Sewer Authority was created in 1972, Charlottesville and Albemarle enacted mandatory water restrictions in August 2007. Just yesterday (Jan. 2, 2008) RWSA executive director since 2004 Tom Frederick downgraded the agency’s Drought Warning to a Drought Watch, clearing the way for the city and county to lift restrictions.

In 1977 the severity of the water shortage was measured in days of supply remaining. In 2002 the water shortage was measured in percent of total capacity. Because the 2007 drought was still milder, the new metric is level of reservoirs below full. But the height of the dam and area of the reservoir are never given, making it a meaningless metric. Today The Daily Progress, WCHV and WINA filled up space and air time with the meaningless measurements.

The numbers keep changing in order to avoid historical comparisons. In 2000 the trigger for mandatory restrictions was 60% of capacity, in 2001 65%, in 2002 70%. In Nov.-Dec. 2001, reserves fell to 68% before reservoirs filled without any rain. In 2007 the water shortage was 93% of full. In 2006 the metric was in-stream flow, removing the water supply itself as a factor in determining whether water restrictions are warranted.

On Sep. 13, 2007, Frederick held a forum at Lane Auditorium in the Albemarle County Office Building at the foot of Vinegar Hill. He kicked off the forum on how to finance the $142 million Ragged Mountain reservoir expansion by saying he wanted to focus on the future. The city and county approved the plan in 2006. Virginia Department of Environmental Quality has approved the plan. The State Water Control Board is expected to approve the plan in March (“Localities set to lift limits on water use” by Jeremy Borden, Jan. 3, 2008, The Daily Progress).

But members of the public complained that RWSA was editing its website to keep the public uninformed, to remove historical information so that documents posted only a year previously had already been removed. The website did not contain basic information such as when the dams were built, how much water they hold, or how tall the dams are (reference for water measurements below top of dam).

Ragged Mountain’s upper reservoir was built 1885 and expanded 1908. Combined Ragged Mountain contains 460 million gallons when full, or 43 days of supply at average daily demand of 10.6 million gallons per day.

Sugar Hollow was built 1924 and holds 360 million gallons or 33 days. A pipeline connects Sugar Hollow to Ragged Mountain. When expanded, a pipeline would bring water from South Rivanna to Ragged Mountain. Water from Sugar Hollow would return normal flow to the Moorman’s river.

The South Rivanna reservoir began operation in 1966, and now contains 750 million gallons or 70 days of water, a third less than 1966 because of sedimentation.

When reservoirs are full, we have 146 days or 20 weeks of supply at normal demand. In 2007 supply fell to 135 days (93%). Until a member of the public demanded this information on Sep. 13, no one was able to quantify the non-severity of the current “drought.”

The city of Charlottesville acquired land for South Rivanna in 1962. The reservoir flooded Hydraulic Mills, the commercial center of the African American community of Union Ridge dating to the early 1800s. John Perry built the mill 1818 which supplied much of the lumber used to build the University of Virginia.

The mill complex included “a grist and merchant mill, a miller’s house, a cooper’s house, a storehouse, a blacksmith’s shop, a country store, and, briefly, a silkworm industry.” Hydraulic Mills became the head of navigation for bateaux commerce on the Rivanna until an 1870 flood “ended river navigation in Albemarle County forever.” (“The Life & Legacy of Hugh Carr: River View Farm” brochure at Ivy Creek Natural Area. Ivy Creek Foundation )

Following the drought of 1977, RWSA acquired 1,300 acres in 1983 near Free Union for Buck Mountain Creek reservoir on a tributary of South Rivanna. But the dam was never built because the endangered James River Spiny Mussel was found. RWSA never returned the land to its owners. In Feb. 2004, RWSA chairman Mike Gaffney said at a City Council meeting that the reservoir might not be built for a hundred years, but the agency is keeping the land as an “insurance policy” against future water demands.

In late 2006, the agency unveiled a plan to use Buck Mountain land in the mitigation plan to replace inundated wetlands and to quadruple the size of the Ragged Mountain reservoir from 460 million gallons to 1,590 million gallons. The pool elevation would be 45 feet higher than today and extend under Interstate 64. Because of the small drainage basin, a pipeline from South Rivanna will fill the mega Ragged Mountain reservoir.

In 2007 RWSA floated the idea to abandon the South Rivanna and allow the reservoir to completely siltate rather than dredge. Today Rivanna holds about half the water supply. When Ragged Mountain is expanded, Rivanna will hold a quarter of the supply and shrinking over time due to siltation.

The expanded Ragged Mountain will flood hiking trails surrounding the existing lakes. Councilor Kevin Lynch and others have asked that this “park land” be replaced with park land elsewhere. But RWSA explained the trails will be relocated to higher ground and expanded, and the financing of that relocation is a point of discussion. Director Frederick said the trails are on reservoir land acquired in the 1880s for the purpose of future expansion. In December Mayor David Brown made the same argument, explaining we must sometimes invest in the future as past generations have done.

“50-year Water Plan for 76% more population: Ragged at same phase as Buck Mountain”, Sep. 18, 2007.

"Council approves Ragged Mountain option: Water for another 50 years", June 6, 2006. Includes RWSA report to Council on Feb 9, 2005. Timeline of South Rivanna reservoir.

"Rivanna uncomfortable using Buck Mountain land for Ragged Mountain plan", November 2, 2006. The agency's signature eminent domain scandal.

Tom Frederick at Lane Auditorium Sep. 13, 2007

Ragged Mountain southwest, Rivanna northeast
Blue= I-64, yellow= 250 bypass, green= 29North
Red= western bypass VDOT right-of-way
B= Birdwood, W= Walmart, U= University Hall
2 possible routes for pipeline shown

Proposed Buck Mountain Reservoir, outline of RWSA-owned land, and Ragged Mountain wetland mitigation

Proposed third dam at Ragged Mountain

“The Last Drought: Has Time Stood Still for 25 Years?” Sep. 3, 2002

Charlottesville and Albemarle County imposed mandatory water conservation August 22 for the first time in “possibly a half century.” The two ordinances were identical and took effect the next calendar day for the 80,000 customers. The maximum penalty for wasting water is $500 and water shut-off (“Water Limits Enacted,” Aug. 23, 2002, Daily Progress).

Actually, the last mandatory water conservation was 1977. The ordinances were similar and took effect immediately with the same penalties applied to the 60,000 customers (“Mandatory Water Ordinances Enacted,” Oct. 8, 1977, Daily Progress). The restrictions remained in Albemarle for 34 days and a day longer in Charlottesville.

“Drought Perspective”, Sep. 18, 2002

Comparison of 1930, 1977, 2002 Droughts


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