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NEWS- Open tap: Dam firm continues to drain city coffers

Published May 1, 2008 in issue 0718 of the Hook
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A page from Gannett Fleming's successful bid to carry out the community's 2002 water plan, which Gannett Fleming promptly dumped.

"Panama, Panama
Aint nothin like it, her shiny machine.
Got the feel for the wheel, keep the moving parts clean."-- Van Halen

Last month, in one of the world's largest dredging deals, the Panama Canal Authority awarded a contract to widen the world-famous waterway, with the winning company, Belgium-based Dredging International, set to earn $177.5 million to remove over 50 million cubic yards of sediment. Although that volume is about ten times the scale of a dredging proposed near Charlottesville, the sum of money actually amounts to less than what it will cost to dredge the 360-acre Rivanna Reservoir-- at least according to one firm.

Now that company, the controversial Pennsylvania-based Gannett Fleming, is back in the headlines again. This time it's not regarding questions over its $225 million local dredging estimate, but because documents show the firm has quietly tapped local water buyers for yet another flood of funds.

Having already parlayed a $798,000 Rivanna Water & Sewer Authority contract into a five-year marathon study that undid the community water plan, the firm has so far billed local water customers over $2.5 million, with another $3.1 million on tap to design a controversial dam that critics say isn't needed.

This week, the Hook obtained documents showing that Gannett Fleming-- having already earned over $46,000 to study dredging and $123,800 for "public involvement"-- won approval in late March for two contract amendments totaling $17,000.

"There's only one setting for the Gannett Fleming spigot: on," says critic Betty Mooney.

Just before the new spending was revealed, prominent Albemarle businessman Bill Crutchfield joined the fray.

"It appears that the decision-makers may have failed to ask the types of questions that prudent businesspeople ask when making tough decisions," Crutchfield, who built one of America's largest consumer electronics firms, writes in a letter to the Hook [RTF].

"Since the beginning of this debate," he continues, "I have felt that it is a mistake not to dredge the South Fork Rivanna Reservoir. Furthermore, my instincts have been extremely uncomfortable with the concept of enlarging the Ragged Mountain dam and connecting the Ragged Mountain and South Fork Rivanna Reservoirs with a 9.5-mile pipeline."

Meanwhile, one of the community's leading environmental voices and a former dredging proponent, Albemarle Supervisor Sally Thomas, has reaffirmed her support for those proposals-- which constitute the bulk of the Authority's $143 million plan-- despite the recent endorsement of dredging by the local chapter of the Sierra Club.

Thomas, who in a recent email mentions a song popularized by Judy Collins, says she's looked at the issue "from both sides now." Although she once proposed a no-confidence vote in the Authority for failing to fully investigate dredging, Thomas now stands firmly behind the Authority's plan.

"The present plan does not insist that dredging cannot be done," Thomas writes to the Sierra Club [RTF], "but it does create an amazing, environmentally responsible, local long-range water supply. It even manages an almost unique feature-- a reservoir that won't silt in. Since the pipeline from South Fork Rivanna Reservoir will bring nearly silt-free water into Ragged Mountain, that reservoir won't experience the silting-in which is the fate of run-of-the-river reservoirs the world around."

As for the additional $17,000 for Gannett Fleming, $5,000 is dedicated to "periodically contact" the Army Corps of Engineers to hasten action on a permit, and $12,000 would buy a PowerPoint presentation "summarizing previous South Fork Rivanna River dredging studies." In other words, Gannett Fleming is getting paid to reiterate its dredging opposition.

"It's a total outrage," says Mooney.

The rough draft of the PowerPoint presentation [PDF] casts dredging in such foreboding terms (noise, thousands of truckloads of dirt rumbling down highways) that when asked by Authority board member and dredging opponent Gary O'Connell what he thought of it, City spokesperson Ric Barrick remarked in a March 11 email, "It doesn't appear as though the writer ever intended dredging to be an option."

Mooney goes further: "It looks like a high school science project gone awry."

However it looks, this is the very same PowerPoint that, as previously reported, O'Connell had hoped to keep out of public view until City Council sets water rates in May.

"Given all the spending thus far, how in the world can you justify giving Gannett Fleming an additional $12,000 to make a PowerPoint presentation, and an additional $5,000 to rush the Army Corps of Engineers to hurry up on approving a permit?" this reporter asked the Authority board Monday, April 28, at the five-member body's regular monthly meeting.

"We're here to listen to your comment," replied chair Mike Gaffney, "not to answer questions."

"Well, I thought there might be some answers," this reporter answered, moving on to a second question: "How could one firm so take over water policy, get that much money, and really destroy the [2002] water plan?"

Gaffney: "Are there other members of the public who would like to speak?"

After the meeting, Authority director Tom Frederick defended the additional spending, which he had arranged under a discretionary ceiling already approved by the board.

"We were getting a lot of questions," said Frederick. "We made a judgment that we needed additional support."

Some citizens think they could use some additional support. Several interested in dredging turned out for the City Council's April 21 meeting.

"People in my subdivision and others I have spoken to," says county resident Phyllis Koch-Sheras, who lives near the reservoir, "are very much in favor of dredging and have been for quite a while. We don't want to be living on a swamp."

Former Councilor Kevin Lynch, a member with Mooney of Citizens for a Sustainable Water Supply, returned to Council the same night marveling that dredging was considered too expensive back when official estimates topped out at just $42 million and $145 million. It wasn't until November 2007 that Gannett Fleming said that dredging might cost as much as $225 million.

"We don't have an obligation to carry consultants through the next recession," said Lynch. "They can find other work." (After some applause, Mayor Norris quipped that Lynch might have a promising career in public service.)

After Lynch, Locust Avenue resident Downing Smith spoke up about the propriety of Gannett Fleming winning the $3.1 million dam contract after successfully steering the Authority board away from the 2002 water plan that called for dredging and a bladder on the Rivanna Reservoir dam.

"Working in finance," said Smith, "I don't ever want to be put in the position to explain to someone why my actions aren't illegal, and this is the position I see the Rivanna Authority in at the moment."

If Gannett Fleming has not found favor in Charlottesville, at least so far the results of its actions here haven't been as dire as in Boston. There, the firm designed massive two-ton overhead concrete panels for a highway tunnel that's part of the so-called "Big Dig." Investigators later blamed the firm for approving an allegedly inadequate system of bolts and epoxy for securing the panels that collapsed and fatally struck a motorist in 2006.

Back in Charlottesville, the concept of dredging will take center stage at a City Council work session May 6. The 5pm meeting is open to the public, but only councilors, city staff, and invited guests are allowed to speak.

In this case, the key invited guest is a nationally renowned dredging management firm called Gahagan & Bryant Associates.

The company, eager to promote its services, has already visited the Rivanna Reservoir and will give a public presentation of its findings on Monday, May 5, at 7pm, a meeting sponsored by Citizens for a Sustainable Water Supply. Both meetings will be held in the new CitySpace room of the Charlottesville Community Design Center on the Downtown Mall

Unlike Gannett Fleming, which once charged local water buyers $8,000 to attend a single regulatory meeting in 2005, Gahagan & Bryant is coming to Charlottesville on its own nickel.


Correction: The printed version of this story mischaracterized Rivanna board member and Charlottesville City Manager Gary O'Connell as a "dredging proponent." Nothing could be further from the truth. O'Connell has been a quite consistent dredging opponent. This online version of the story has been thusly corrected.



Judy Collins5/1/2008 6:23:54 PM

Its dredging illusions I recall ... I really dont know dredging at all.

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