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NEWS- 'Conservative' tale: When a single Mud Cat just won't do

Published April 3, 2008 in issue 0714 of the Hook


Doomed by official refusals to dredge, the sediment-choked Rivanna Reservoir will shrink to just 12 percent of its original volume 42 years from now.



Don Meyer of Dock Doctors wants to dredge for $21 million.

An Ellicott "Dragon" 670 with 40 dB low noise package includes an engine enclosure with sound-attenuating panels, baffled cooling ducts, and a residential muffler.

Another dredging controversy has emerged as critics of a $143 million water plan have uncovered a four-year-old memo by local waterworks director Tom Frederick in which he calls his consultant's $145 million dredging estimate "conservative."


As anyone following the ongoing saga of Frederick's effort to avoid dredging the Rivanna Reservoir will recall, consultant Gannett Fleming (which eventually won a $3.1 million dam design contract from the Rivanna Water and Sewer Authority) later raised its dredging estimate as high as $225 million. That sum is so staggering that it has provoked laughter among would-be dredgers and caused several to come forward offering to perform the operation for far less.

The latest is Dock Doctors. Based at Smith Mountain Lake, the company most recently performed some private dredgings at Lake Anna, and owner Don Meyer says he would happily dredge the Rivanna Reservoir for $21 million.

"I told them three or four years ago that I'd do it for that [price]," Meyer says. "Then they said they weren't interested in dredging, so that was a dead issue."

Meyer says that despite the recent rise in diesel fuel prices, his offer still stands.

Frederick did not immediately respond to a request for comment, but his December 3, 2004 memo [PDF]-- part of a successful effort to avoid a no-confidence vote by the Albemarle Board of Supervisors-- offers some insights. The memo reveals the reasoning that quashed the idea of dredging, an enterprise usually seen as the least environmentally damaging option and one that might save the community from erecting a 112-foot high dam, clear-cutting 180 acres of forest, and building a 9.5-mile pipeline to move millions of gallons of water uphill every day.

  In the memo, Frederick mentions just two dredging options: paying to truck away the spoils or piling them up around the reservoir where they might wash back in. However, interviews with industry experts show that several more options exist, and at least two of them could provide millions in revenue for any dredging operation.

"Clean, dewatered fill sells for about $3 a ton, depending on demand," says Steve Miller, sales manager for Baltimore-based Ellicott Dredges. "You can set up a dewatering staging area and have local aggregate companies provide bids for the material."

In other words, the dredging operation not only wouldn't pay to truck away the spoils, but it might be paid by someone who wants to haul it away.

Miller points to another option omitted by Frederick: pumping away the spoils.

In Decatur, Illinois, an ongoing dredging operation pumps its sediment to a farm four miles away using just two booster pumps, according to project manager Keith Alexander.

And as reported in last week's Hook ['Full steam ahead': Emails suggest O'Connell, Conservancy blocking dredging], there's a potential pumped-fill customer just two miles away: the Charlottesville-Albemarle Airport. Currently eyeing a major runway expansion and vexed by federal funding limitations, the Airport has earmarked a majority of the project's $53 million budget to purchase 2.3 million cubic yards of fill.

A new controversy has exploded on that front as well, as evident in the Hook's letters section, where a Nature Conservancy official tries to explain his attempt to steer Airport director Barbara Hutchinson away from potentially saving millions of dollars with dredged fill.

Gregory Edwards characterizes his role as merely an advisor to the Airport and explains that he opposes such discussions because there are "so many unanswered questions." And in an attempted "gotcha" moment, a colleague of Edwards at the Conservancy posts on the Hook's website an email from Hutchinson [RTF] that portrays one of the critics as attempting to pass himself off as a developer. (The critic, psychiatrist Joe Mooney, denies any misrepresentation.)

Edwards isn't the only local official to go into damage-control mode. Beginning Sunday, March 30, local water users began funding new water authority activities: buying ads in the Daily Progress.

In a nearly half-page ad purchased by the Rivanna Authority, various government officials pledge their support to the ongoing $3.1 million design of the Ragged Mountain replacement dam, a structure that would create a reservoir stretching under Interstate 64 and require a pipeline and other infrastructure that would trigger a new wave of debt funding, eventually cost well over $100 million, and increase water bills to pay the tab.

The advertisement's signees-- Frederick, Charlottesville Mayor Dave Norris, Albemarle Supervisors chair Ken Boyd, and Albemarle County Service Authority Chair Donald Wagner-- say they want more exploration of maintenance dredging, something they had allegedly abandoned after the firm that eventually won the dam design contract portrayed dredging too smelly and expensive for the community to tolerate.

In previous stories, the Hook has revealed that the Authority's own documents show that despite crisis claims, the water system already has over 60 percent more capacity than is currently needed. A bit of number crunching shows that reservoir dredging could supply all of the area's 50-year water needs, contentions that have not found favor among those committed to the new-dam plan.

In a recent email, Piedmont Environmental Council executive Jeff Werner points out that a typical dredge with a machine called a Mud Cat might need to pump out three cubic yards of wet material to yield one cubic yard of sediment. And when one considers that a standard Mud Cat can move a maximum of 200 cubic yards per hour, it becomes clear that a single Mud Cat, even if operating 24/7 without a breakdown, might need to work for 8.5 years to move the estimated five million cubic yards of sediment in the reservoir.

Indeed, all current estimates from private contractors and recent experiences by municipalities suggest a multi-year scenario. That's the bad news.

The good news is that, contrary to estimates from the Authority's favorite consultants, Gannett Fleming, dredging wouldn't put 67 trucks a day on local roads for 50 years. Dock Doctors' Meyer, for instance, says he'd plunk down $1.2 million for a different machine, an Ellicott "Dragon," model #1170, equipped with a cutterhead to bite through branches, stumps, and other debris. And he'd want four years to get the job done.

None of the dredging experts interviewed by the Hook envision an operation that would put convoys of sediment-laden trucks on the roads, because the most economical method of dealing with such sediments is pumping and finding other uses.

In the city of Virginia Beach, Lonnie Gregory oversees a crew of about six workers keeping Rudee Inlet flowing freely. He says the single 1987 Ellicott 970S "Dragon" dredge moves about 500 cubic yards per hour. As an ocean-front operation that must shut down during storms, the effort typically moves less than 250,000 cubic yards per year.

"When you're on a lake or river," explains Gregory, "you can dredge every day because the weather's not such a factor."

With a 4,000-foot pipe to move the spoils-- all sand-- and dump them on the nearby beach, Gregory's operation entails no disposal cost; he puts the cost of his operation at about $3-$4 per cubic yard.

At Lake Decatur, a body of water in Illinois about nine times the size of the Rivanna Reservoir, authorities aren't sure if the spoils from their current dredging project will get recycled or if they'll simply raise the level of the 385-acre farm they acquired to host the dewatering. They're finding that the cost is $5 to $7 per cubic yard to move 323,000 cubic yards annually.

Such a slow pace would push the voluminous sedimentation situation at Rivanna Reservoir into a 15-year operation. But Decatur project manager Keith Alexander points out that his crew of city employees is still learning the ropes and works only from April to November.

"In our 1990s dredge project," says Alexander, "an experienced contractor with a dredge similar to what we have now was able to dredge one million cubic feet per year."

Keith Tate of Bayland Consulting has seen some large dredges around his base in Baltimore dredge up to 100,000 cubic yards per day.

"But that takes up a lot of space," says Tate, suggesting that for the Rivanna Reservoir to bulk up its dredging volume might simply require multiple smaller dredges.

Tate says he's seen some tricky dredging proposals come in as high as $25 per cubic yard, but told about the $45 per cubic yard top estimate provided by Gannett Fleming, he notes, "You'd have to work at it to make it that expensive."

Bob Cumbow oversees dredging operations in Ohio's recreational lakes. With eight to ten operations going at any one time, Cumbow calculates costs for staff time, diesel fuel, repairs, piping, and dredges-- everything except land for dewatering, which the state already owns. His crews have an average cost, he says, of under $3 per cubic yard.

At that price, dredging the Rivanna Reservoir of five million cubic yards of sediment would cost just $15 million. But challenges remain. Among them is finding a farm or airport willing to accept a dewatering operation.


Correction: In the original printed version of this story, Mooney was described as a psychologist; in fact, he is a psychiatrist. This online version of the story has been thusly corrected--editor.


It appears the taxpayer once again is going to be taken for ride as the powers that be squander funds and perhaps line the pockets of those with the right connections. Of course if ALL builders did their part to prevent sediments from destruction sites from washing into the waterways we wouldn't need to dredge would we. Of course farms are to blame too as horse & cows leave the land raw but who really cares about the cause....just spend on the cure!

posted by TheTruthInLies at 4/3/2008 8:45:51 AM

sediment occurs in ALL rivers, They should figure out how much sediment comes in every year and pump twice as much out every year and in ten years it will be back to the starting point. After that they should continually pump whatever comes in on an ongoing basis so that this situation does not reoccur.

If they blow money on the new dam people should go to jail.

posted by sandman at 4/4/2008 12:13:37 AM

So you are saying when the Rivanna turns a nice clay red that is sediment? I use the term sediment loosely when referring to runoff and all its earthly passengers. Seems like the topsoil was removed somewhere for the clay to be exposed.

Just hire Meyer and be done with this fiasco or will that be admitting RSWA screwed up with this consultant and their high dollar solution.

I bet I could get this done for 1/2 a billion dollars, of course I might raise it to 1 billion if they wait too long. LOL

posted by TheTruthInLies at 4/4/2008 8:41:15 AM

The clay gets into the rivers because topsoil is only a few inches deep and all hills have ravines, the topsoil is eroded naturally at the "drip line" of any large tree exposing the clay. If you read even old novels they talked about the the muddy rivers long before the tractor was ever invented.

posted by sandman at 4/4/2008 9:23:21 AM

Excellent reporting! Keep digging! You should entitle this series "The Dredge Report." As a well owner, I don't have to worry (I hope) about paying big water bills for this financial fiasco that City and County elected representatives and the RWSA and the ACSA are foisting on their H20 customers. I'm becoming suspicious that some folks in power here just want a new expanded lake at Ragged Mountain and under I-64 at taxpayer expense so they can print new promotional brochures to sell more land and houses to fatten their personal investment portfolios. How about doing a story on who owns land within a couple miles of the perimeter of what will be the larger Ragged Mountain Reservoir?

posted by GettingSoaked at 4/4/2008 11:12:39 AM

I agree there will always be some natural erosion. I didnt realize the clear cutting done by destruction sites and livestock trampling stream beds and defoliating the soil wouldn't cause excessive erosion. I stand corrected!

posted by TheTruthInLies at 4/4/2008 11:18:01 AM

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