Water covers about 71% of the Earth’s surface, the majority of which is found in the ocean and too salty to be used for drinking or growing crops. There is a limited amount of water available for most uses, and ensuring water supply for current and future generations is something required of localities by the commonwealth of Virginia.
For the past 20 years, Greene County and Rapidan Service Authority (RSA)—which manages the county’s water plant system on U.S. Route 29 in Ruckersville—have been planning for that future and for a long-term water supply project. But now that future is cast in doubt after an overt rift between the two. Both sides agree something changed within the past year, but are unable or unwilling to discuss what.
In July, the RSA Board of Members voted 4-2—with Greene’s two representatives voting against—to end facility fee billing for both water and sewer and have future hook-up fee payments go to RSA instead of the county. The decision undercut the plan to fund the water supply project, which several board members said should fall under RSA’s oversight.
The RSA Board of Members is made up of two representatives from each of the three counties. Greene County Board of Supervisors Chair Bill Martin, Stanardsville District, and Ron Williams, a planning commissioner, are appointed by the supervisors to represent Greene.
In an emergency meeting on July 21, the Greene County Board of Supervisors met in closed session and instructed staff and the county attorney to draft a resolution asking for Madison and Orange supervisors to release Greene from the RSA partnership. If the other boards did not support the resolution, Greene supervisors said they would file a lawsuit against RSA for breach of contract. The resolution was unanimously passed by Greene County supervisors. At press time no lawsuit had been filed, but it was reiterated at the Greene supervisors’ Sept. 8 meeting.
“The Rapidan Service Authority has put an obstacle in our way,” Martin said. “This board signed the resolution back on July 28. We all know what’s in it. We all know that our sister counties—Orange and Madison—did not permit us to leave the authority so we could go out on our own. They had their reasons for doing that. And that resolution states one last element that this board has signed off on, and that is to move forward with legal action to address what seems to me clear and convincing breach of contract.”
Greene is roughly
$24 million into this project, the debt on which must be paid with county funds. There are many questions surrounding Greene’s water project, including whether the project can move forward without an impoundment and still provide enough water to residents and businesses, who will operate the project, how their money (including controversial facility fees) has been spent thus far and how it will be used moving forward.
RSA was founded in 1969 through resolutions by the boards of supervisors of Greene, Madison and Orange counties for water and sewer operations in the three counties. RSA had two stated purposes, according to records obtained from the county via an open records request. Purpose A had to do with the creation of a water system in Orange County. Purpose B is stated as “the acquisition, construction, operation and maintenance of water supply and treatment facilities plus a water transmission, storage and distribution system in Greene County that will supply, treat and transmit water from a water impoundment near Stanardsville to the Town of Stanardsville and to the Ruckersville community and the area along Rt. U.S. 33 between Stanardsville and Ruckersville.” At that time, there was a small impoundment in Lydia, but that was decommissioned in 2009.
The Rapidan River supplies the majority of the public water for Greene County and there is one well drilled as a backup supply. Mountain Lakes Water, a private water system, also services portions of the county. The Rapidan River is the sole public water source for Orange County.
Greene County’s population more than doubled between 1990 and 2000 and both the county and RSA began looking at what would be needed to create a 50-year water supply plan, as required by Virginia code 62.1-44.38:1 and 9 VAC 25-780.
RSA commissioned Gilbert W. Clifford & Associates Inc. in Winchester to create a 30-year comprehensive water supply plan dated August 2000, obtained by the Greene County Record through an open records request.
“Analysis of historic streamflow data indicated a safe yield of 1.15 million gallons per day … for the Greene County withdrawal point and a value of 2.35 million gallons per day for the Town of Orange,” the report stated. “Based on this analysis, the existing surface water withdrawals have already been developed to their maximum extent.”
A 2010 Virginia Department of Health (VDH) Waterworks Operation Permit, also obtained through an open records request, confirmed the safe yield as 1.15 million gallons per day for the Rapidan at the Ruckersville plant.
The 2000 RSA-sanctioned report laid out a schedule and costs that would have had the project finished by March 2010, for less than $20 million. It also considered linking the three counties’ water infrastructure together, but that did not happen.
The report noted that groundwater sources in the Virginia Piedmont don’t produce yields high enough to meet the demand needed for Greene and recommended a pumped storage site, also called an impoundment, off the Rapidan River near White Run, a tributary to the Rapidan.
However, by 2005, with no movement by RSA to create the White Run Reservoir, the Greene County Board of Supervisors decided to move forward with the project—and agreed to take on $4.8 million in RSA debt. Since that time, the public water connection fees, also called equivalent dwelling units or EDUs, have been paid to Greene County to help pay off that assumed RSA debt, other required water infrastructure and the planning of the now-designed water treatment and reservoir plan.
In 2007-2008, the Great Recession caused residential and commercial growth to slow for approximately a five-year period, compromising project funding. The county still pursued the plan with the hired engineering firm WW Associates. The Army Corps of Engineers agreed on a site in Ruckersville between Watson, Dairy and Fredericksburg roads for the 900-million gallon reservoir and the county purchased the property for $3 million. The plan calls for a 1,460-foot-long and 75-foot-high earthen dam and flooding roughly 125 acres. That would provide a safe yield of 3.5 million gallons per day, more than triple the current maximum draw from the river alone.
RSA opened the current water plant in the late 1980s, which is prior to the 1992 state water regulations regarding surface water withdrawal permits. The current plant operates on exclusion (or is grandfathered) and does not need a Virginia Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) withdrawal permit. It is allowed to withdraw 1.15 million gallons per day based on the VDH permit.
Herb White, who has worked on the project from the start, says a reservoir is needed based on a more recent DEQ assessment indicating a daily safe yield of the river of 0.9 million gallons per day.
In December 2014, Greene County and RSA entered into an agreement to add a facility fee to the monthly bills of customers to help pay for the water treatment project. In 2017, Stantec, a financial consultant for Greene, developed a funding plan for the project that included increasing the facility fees gradually over several years. While the financial discussions of costs remain protected by the Freedom of Information Act during negotiations, county supervisors have estimated the costs of the project currently between $45-65 million in public meetings. According to a facility fee summary from RSA (obtained through open records request), the county has received more than $3 million in facility fee payments to date.
Stantec also recommended that 7.5 cents per $1 of real estate tax revenue from everyone in the county be put toward the financing. This is the bulk—and always has been—of the financing for the project with roughly $1.5 million annually set aside for water infrastructure. Finally, the county charges $10,000 per EDU for water hookups, bringing in about $300,000 per year for the project, according to Stantec’s analysis. Stantec’s recommendation that the facility fee be assessed to all EDUs purchased generated roughly $450,000 per year to fund the infrastructure.
With RSA’s decision to no longer bill for facility fees any longer and to require water EDU funds to go to RSA and not the county, a large portion of the project’s funding is now gone.
“RSA wants Greene County taxpayers to pay for the new water system,” Taylor said. “Taxpayers pay the biggest share already. The county agreed to build the system because RSA won’t. Greene County needs it; we’re taking on the debt and building the project. Why shouldn’t Greene County decide who pays what share?”
According to Tracy Morris, Greene County Director of Finance and Deputy Administrator, the county has received roughly $12.9 million in water EDUs since 2005. It has received about $7.7 million in sewer EDUs, she said.
Morris said both go into their own line items within the budget and cover the debt for the water and sewer projects.
In March 2018, the supervisors voted to purchase $9,388,352 in streambank credits, which are required by the state and federal governments for the mitigation of the small tributary’s wetlands that would be altered if the land is flooded to create the reservoir. In 2019, an additional $2.1 million was approved to buy more credits.
Morris said the county has $22.4 million in outstanding water debt and another $9.7 million in sewer-related debt.
“We have been looking at financing strategies by which the Greene County Water Supply Project can proceed,” Taylor said. “The board of supervisors forcefully expressed their resolve to proceed with the project at [the Sept. 8 meeting]. We will find a way forward.”
The water project has been stymied since mid-July when the RSA Board of Members voted to end facility fee billing and take on the water project itself. Greene County Director of Planning and Zoning Administrator Jim Frydl said that without the project, growth in Greene County, especially commercial growth, stops. However, there are no scheduled meetings between county and RSA staff to develop a plan.
RSA General Manager Tim Clemons told the RSA Board of Members at the Aug. 20 meeting that he invited Williams and Martin to sit down with RSA staff to begin drafting a plan for the county. Martin responded by email, obtained by the Greene County Record, with several questions—from what financial resources would pay for the project to what happens to the $11 million the county has already spent—prior to choosing a date. Martin said he never received a response.
According to an
Aug. 24 email received through a Greene County Record open records request, Clemons invited the two Greene representatives to his office again to work on a water supply plan for the county.
“In short, prior to sitting down with you, we need to have a better understanding of what RSA’s long-term engineering and financial strategies are to meet Greene County’s current and future water supply needs and where a water impoundment fits into RSA’s plans,” Martin responded in an email. “RSA would do well to share its plans not only with Mr. Williams and I but, as well, with Greene County’s Board of Supervisors and the residents of Greene County. At this point, it is best that discussions take place in open, public meetings.”
At the Aug. 20 meeting, Clemons discussed the possibility of installing a Pall Corporation membrane system that could increase the plant’s capacity by two or three times above the 1.15 million gallons per day, in the same footprint of the current plant, for roughly $10 million. The closest locality utilizing the system is the Town of Broadway in the Shenandoah Valley.
Town Manager Kyle O’Brien said the Pall system has been online for about a year now.
“It’s phenomenal,” O’Brien said. “We looked at every single alternative. We looked for five solid years.”
Broadway’s raw water source is the Shenandoah River, which, similar to the Rapidan River, in times of heavy downpours get tumbled over and mixed up with silt.
“Membranes could not treat that before but this can,” he said. “From an efficiency standpoint, it’s a wonderful system. We can do in two hours what used to take 12 hours.”
While a possible new system could improve efficiency and increase the treatment plant’s output, it doesn’t change the safe yield of the Rapidan, Martin said, and the fact that a water impoundment remains necessary to meet future demands.
“This is not an issue of being able to get 3 million gallons out of the river in December,” White said. “It’s an issue of how do you do it in July when there’s no water in the river to pump out. I was there (in the drought of 2002) and I saw the river. I saw what RSA was doing to get water into the intake and there was no water in the river. They were using small contractor pumps trying to get enough water out of the river, out of the puddles, to put in the intake to allow for the community to have water during those hot summer days in 2002. It was not a good picture.”
Clemons offered a 10-year analysis of the water usage in Greene County at the Aug. 20 meeting as well. The highest annual average was in 2014 with an average of .613 million gallons of water drawn daily from the river. The highest annual maximum-draw day occurred in 2013 with 1.109 million gallons used. Additionally, there currently are 725 unused EDUs that have been sold that would require about 145,000 gallons of water per day if they are utilized.
White notes in his letter that showing an annual average doesn’t show the complete picture.
“Averages do not tell the tale,” White told supervisors Sept. 8. “An average is how much water you use every day for 365 days and dividing that by 365. There are peak days, typically in the summer around July, that are grossly in excess of average.”
White said when the river is running well, as it is currently from recent rains, it would be possible to pull out 3 million gallons. In a drought or dry weather that wouldn’t be possible.
“The goal here from the beginning was to acquire 900-million gallons of raw water storage,” White said. “That was a statistical number that was calculated based on the run of the river, how many dry weather days one can anticipate. We picked a 3-million-gallon average daily demand for sizing the water treatment facilities.”
During wet periods, the county can pump additional storage into the reservoir that will be utilized during dry periods, which minimizes the impact on the Rapidan River and downstream users. White said the 900-million-gallon reservoir was chosen because it would get the community through a drought—which generally lasts between 90 to 120 days.
The project includes a new treatment plant near the reservoir and White said updating the current plant where it stands is a “waste of expenditure and infrastructure because the source is not there. To be a little more specific, forget where the water plant is located; you need a reservoir that has water in it so you have a source of water to route to the treatment plant, regardless of where it’s located.”
White told supervisors that if the funding was approved, it would take 90 days to get the shovels moving due to bid and contract requirements. He said it would take about two years to construct the full project and could take a year to fill the reservoir.
RSA staff presented a capital projects plan at the Aug. 20 meeting to improve water issues facing those in Stanardsville. The plan is estimated to cost $12 million and includes a water main from Quinque to a water storage tank in Stanardsville; replacement of water mains; replacing sewer transmission mains; relining sewer mains; and sewer force main upgrades at Greene Mountain Lake. That is in addition to the projected $10 million for the Pall Corporation upgrade at the water treatment plant.
“So, there are a couple significant items that are being discussed that are estimated at around $25 million from the numbers I’m seeing. None of that includes a pumped water storage facility, there is no reservoir, there is no impoundment,” Martin said. “From an engineer’s standpoint and prioritization of what’s important for Greene County’s current and future water needs and never mind that yes, Stanardsville has been left behind for way too long by RSA, does any of that make sense to you?”
“No, sir, it doesn’t,” White responded. “You’ve got to have a reliable supply, as we’ve stated the goal here would be where’s the water coming from during dry weather periods? The first priority you’ve got to get straight is where the water is coming from. That’s why this reservoir project should be a much higher priority than any other project associated with water infrastructure for the county.”
White said it’s time to build the project.
“The engineering for the White Run Pump Storage project is complete. The regulatory process is nearing completion,” he said. “We therefore recommend that now is the time to construct this project to ensure adequate water supply and treatment for Greene County residents for years to come.”
Every supervisor agreed Sept. 8 that it’s time to move forward on the project, despite the issues raised by RSA.
“As far as this obstacle standing in our way, we’ve had other obstacles that have been in our way before, and we’ve overcome those obstacles. I don’t see where this is going to be different,” said At-Large Supervisor Dale Herring. “We need to move forward on this as soon as possible. And the situation with RSA is simply a bump, if you will, in a very rough road that we’ve been traveling on the past several years. We have made progress, and we’ll get over that bump and we’ll go forward.”
The next RSA Board of Members public meeting is scheduled for Thursday, Sept. 17, with time and location to be determined.
Visit rapidan.org/meeting-agendas for more information. The next Greene County Board of Supervisors meeting is scheduled for 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, Sept. 22. Visit greenecountyva.gov/government/local/board-supervisors for information about meetings.