Let’s build the earthen dam at Ragged Mountain
by Vic Peña

Over the past few weeks, in conversations with my friends and neighbors in the County the subject of water availability and costs will eventually come up.  This was especially true while many of us were in the process of the fall ritual of preparing our lawns, gardens and landscapes for the winter months, and for a resurgent Spring of flourishing flora.  After the summer of 2010, its drought and threat of water rationing, many of us are justifiably concerned for our water availability in 2011.  Will we have enough, and what will be the cost?

Invariably, our conversations about water focus on what the City of Charlottesville plans to do to solve the pressing problem of the Ragged Mountain Dam falling on disrepair and unable to meet current and projected demand.

Having suffered through yet another rather scary summer regarding our water supply, the issue of building an affordable, beneficial, and capable dam of supporting our County’s present and future growth continues to drag on.  In my opinion, and supported by my own reading of the issue and research of  it, an earthen dam is the most cost efficient and beneficial way to go.  An earthen dam is also a quick start “shovel ready project.”  It’s time to quit holding us, both the citizens of the City and County, hostage to a future of water availability uncertainty.  Perhaps thoughts on this subject will help the City officials to “get off the dime.”

The term “being held hostage” has gained popularity of late.  But, yes, it is a fitting description to what residents of Albemarle County, Charlottesville, and now UVa, are experiencing because of Mayor Dave Norris and the Charlottesville City Council’s indecision to building a whole new earthen dam downstream of the Lower Ragged Mountain Dam. Frustrated, with the outlook of another bleak waterless summer, is another way of describing our situation.

It’s time for a decision. The decision should be in favor of an earthen dam, and a by gosh big one.  There are a number of reasons for an earthen dam. The most salient being that it can be started now.  Albemarle County and the City of Charlottesville have the resources and wherewithal to break ground immediately, these being engineering talent, raw materials, and heavy construction corporations more than anxious and willing to bid on the contracts to bring this dam to fruition.  Another popular term comes to mind: “Shovel Ready Jobs”.  We can put people to work on this right now.  Additionally, the economic climate has never been more favorable to proceed with cost efficient contracts.

We do not need to wait for another study as Mayor Dave Norris proposes.  We have credible data on hand from the Independent Technical Review Team (ITRT) dated November 23, 2010 and the support of one of the most prestigious universities in the United States, our own, UVa, to proceed forthwith to build the earthen dam.

Mayor Dave Norris asserts the prestige of the firm of Black and Veatch, upon which to base a decision.  But the fact is that the ITRT dismissed many of the construction and engineering components in Black and Veatch’s design concept.  The most damning is the collective issue of safety.  The ITRT asserts with reasoned engineering conclusion, that building a “roller compacted concrete, RCC, dam” on the existing Ragged Mountain Dam, would require extensive remediation of that structure, without adding capacity to water retention, or assurance of safety.

The history of foot dragging to building a new dam has been going on since the political leadership of Albemarle County and Charlottesville adopted the Community Water Supply Plan in 2006.  That plan was agreed upon as being the most cost-effective to meet our Community’s long term water needs, i.e., it provides for the most environmentally friendly approach to construction, and it is supported by virtually all environmental and commercial organizations of the area, from the Piedmont Environmental Council, the Nature Conservancy and the Chamber of Commerce, just to name a few.

While it would be easy to get “wonky” in writing thoughts such as these, I have tried to draw attention to the frustration that citizens (taxpayers and water bill payers), like me have with the indecision on the part of the Mayor and his Council to right now make a decision to go with an earthen dam.

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Rob Schilling is founder of the multi-award-winning Schilling Show Blog and News, proprietor of Schilling Show Media; host of both the Schilling Show Unleashed Podcast and WINA's The Schilling Show heard weekdays at noon; husband; father; worship leader, Christian recording artist and Community Watchdog.


  1. I believe you are only getting your information from the newspaper which has printed a lot of misinformation while being originally in support of a new concrete mega-dam and now seems to be in support of a new earthen mega-dam. Recently, the County refused to allow an approved but yet-to-be-built subdivision for water hookup. Why? County policy says that water hookups are not allowed in the rural areas. Those houses will be using well water which has nothing to do with RWSA. Now, the County’s growth area represents only 5% of the County’s land surface. It will be some of those residence, not all by no means, along with city residents who will be paying for the new water supply plan. That means at least half of the current County residents will not be contributing to covering the cost. That is not cheaper, that is more expensive financing. Also, you mentioned tax payers contributing to the cost on the Schilling Show. That is illegal by Virginia law. Tax money is prohibited from being used to cover utility costs. The rate payers will bear the entire brunt. That will be more expensive for you. Right now, my utility bills have tripled since the drought of 2002 and, as you say, nothing has been built. What will it be when we start building? If the new super mega-dam capable of holding 2 billion gallons is built, it will be your money that will be paying the debt service for decades. That is not cheaper for you. In order to spread the costs and reduce everyone’s bills, RWSA will need a lot more customers. But Albemarle is not connecting water in rural areas and it may be quite some time before another subdivision is built in the growth area. You will be bearing the expensive burden. It is a question of financing this project.
    Also, even if the mega-dam was built tomorrow, you will not have more water. Why? Because the pipeline that is needed to fill it will not be built for at least a decade according to RWSA. It can not be built until the rights-of-way are purchased, which you will be paying for before other water customers will be added. Right now there is no money to purchase these easements. As for “shovel ready” there is no plan to use federal dollars for this project, even if they could be. The feds are not interested. And those people who are shoveling now will need to be paid now. Out of your pocket.
    And last, the quickest way for you to have more water in order to water your lawn (ever thought of rain barrels or cisterns? The unprocessed water is free) is to increase the storage capacity at South Fork Rivanna Reservoir by simply dredging which is done, not only around the country currently, but also around the world. It is very affordable and there is an immediate market for the dredged materials which will help pay for the dredging. Besides, do you really want to pay to store water for the next thirty to forty years that will just be sitting on top of the mountain evaporating and leeching the bedrock? That will be a substantial savings for you. You see this is not a problem that will be solved by cocktail conversations as was once tried by the problem-solving groups. It is primarily an engineering and financial question that requires knowledgeable investigation by experts and the environmental groups that you named are not capable of conducting that.

  2. As for cost:
    http://cvilletomorrow.typepad.com/charlottesville_tomorrow_/2011/01/phased_dam_costs.html?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=feed&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+cvilletomorrow_rss+%28Charlottesville+Tomorrow+News+Center%29&utm_content=Google+Reader :

    The engineering firm hired by Charlottesville to evaluate the cost and feasibility of expanding the Lower Ragged Mountain Dam says its concrete design can be done in phases and at a price well below that of an all-new earthen dam favored by Albemarle County.

  3. Kenneth,

    Finally, the respective Boards of Supervisors of the City of Charlottesville and Albemarle County are meeting, this afternoon, January 18, 2011, to reach a decision on the future water supply situation of this area.

    It can only be hoped that the respective Boards have the political will and leadership to make the prudent decision to support present needs, future growth, and economic opportunities. It is true that dredging is practiced worldwide, but dredging is a maintenance activity which has been ignored here in the past. Dredging per se of the Ragged Mountain Dam in this instance has no historical credibility as a solution. Dredging should have been a cyclic maintenance program.

    Dredging now, coupled with constructing a higher dam on the existing structure of the Ragged Mountain Dam, is seriously challenged from an engineering and scientific study conducted by the “INDEPENDENT TECHNICAL REVIEW TEAM [:] RAGGED MOUNTAIN DAM” authored by Paul Rizzo, PhD, PE; Donald A. Bruce, PhD, C. Eng., and Daniel L. Johnson. I cite this study in my original letter. Additionally, in my letter I referenced support for a new earthen dam by other authorities and stakeholders in this issue.

    With regard to future taxes, my comments on the Rob Schilling Show were clear. If growth is not supported in this area, and water is a fundamental resource in attracting and considering this (I use growth as a universal term encompassing, commerce, economy, education, industrial, population and all other contributing factors), our area will become static. The resulting impact on the residents of both the City and County will be increased taxes (a stagnation of the tax base) and increased water costs, or worse, the shortage of water, and quite naturally an exodus from our area.

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