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King William Reservoir: Where to go from here?

Contact: Glen Besa 804-387-6001
For Immediate Release
May 26, 2009

By Sabine Hirschauer


9:56 PM EDT, August 17, 2009


Last of three parts

— The Newport News City Council will be briefed next month on how the city can best untangle the complex web of contractual obligations related to the King William Reservoir.

Over the 20 years since the city began its effort to secure a water source that would see the region through the next half-century, land has been purchased, contracts signed and debt taken on.

As of July, Newport News had spent $51.2 million on the dream of a 12.2-billion gallon reservoir in King William County. Now, city officials hope they'll be able to recoup some of that money.

The City Council gave Newport News Waterworks 120 days to analyze and fine-tune steps on how to accomplish that goal and how to cancel or fulfill some of its pending contractual obligations, among other things. The council is scheduled to make a formal decision about the fate of the reservoir in October, city officials said.

The reservoir project was all but killed earlier this year when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers suspended the city's federal permit for the reservoir. However, Newport News will still need to spend more money on the project, said Mayor Joe S. Frank.

There is, for example, a considerable amount of land — at least 38 properties — to contend with. The parcels, bought for the reservoir and wetlands mitigations, were often carved out of larger pieces of land and purchased at more than the appraised value. That money — roughly $15.2 million — will be hard to recoup without significant losses.

"It obviously was more valuable at the time to us than it is now to the landowner," said Randy Hildebrandt, who last week was given a notice of the City Council's intention to terminate him as city manager.

Some of that property might never be sold and will have to stay with the city, Hildebrandt said.

In addition, Newport News is reselling some of the bonds it bought for the reservoir and is working to divert reservoir bond dollars to other capital projects.

And then there are the contracts with neighboring localities counting on Newport News to provide for their future water needs.

One example: The city agreed to provide water to James City County and Williamsburg with or without the reservoir. Under the contract with the county, the James City Service Authority can purchase 4 million gallons of water per day during normal periods and up to 6.5 million gallons per day during peak demand.

Earlier this year, Williamsburg signed a similar agreement stipulating that 2 million gallons of water per day would be supplied from the reservoir.

Williamsburg would pay $25 million for the water in two installments — the first coming three months after the signing of the agreement and the final payment by 2024.

"We will live up to our obligations," Frank said.

What's the solution without the reservoir?

Brian Ramaley, director of Newport News Waterworks, says plenty of water alternatives are available.

"It will be a menu of many things," he said.

Two groups opposed to the reservoir released a report in May outlining a slew of such options.

The Sierra Club and the Alliance to Save the Mattaponi say conservation and desalination will become key to supplying water for the Peninsula for generations to come.

Efficiency standards for showers, faucets, toilets and washing machines has decreased the consumption of water on the Peninsula and across the country.

The report, which was prepared by Richmond-based Environmental Stewardship Concepts, referred to a California study that found retrofitting a three-bedroom home with low-flow appliances would reduce annual water consumption by 10,500 gallons.

Extrapolating that data to Newport News Waterworks, conservation could save Peninsula customers an estimated 11.51 million gallons per day, according to the report.

Newport News officials agree in part but are cautious about putting overly optimistic expectations on conservation efforts.

"The question is how much lower can you go," said Dave Morris, the reservoir project manager. "It will bottom out at some point."

Another water option is desalination, the highly complex process of extracting salt from brackish, salty groundwater and turning it into drinking water.

Since 1998, Waterworks' desalination plant at Lee Hall has produced about 5 million to 6 million gallons of drinking water a day.

"I am not afraid to build one," Ramaley said of an additional desalination plant.

The Lee Hall desalination plant cost $17 million to design and build in 1998 and would cost much more today. In addition, even with technological advances, the process of desalination is very expensive, needs a lot of energy and doesn't provide as much water compared to a reservoir, Waterworks officials say.

For example, in 2008, it cost $1.79 to treat 1,000 gallons of desalted water. In comparison, it's much cheaper — 35 cents per 1,000 gallons — to treat reservoir water, according to city records. Promising new technology could bring those costs down, reservoir opponents say.

Waterworks officials are skeptical.

"I am not betting my customers' future on it," said Ramaley. "We can hope for technology, but can we count on it?"

Reservoir opponents also recommend reactivating dormant local reservoirs such as the Big Bethel Reservoir, which is owned by the federal government.

Other options for Newport News include buying water from Norfolk and other localities and raising the levels of existing reservoirs, which would provide more water.

"We are looking at all these options," Ramaley said. "We won't leave a stone unturned."

A costly lesson

Should Newport News have embarked on such an ambitious project?

"We looked at 50 years and beyond," Morris said. "And maybe you can't do that."

One of the lessons learned in the failed reservoir effort is that the city must find more inventive ways to guarantee water for the Peninsula in the 21st century.

Another is to help Virginia find a more unified and simpler way to get large water projects permitted, Frank said.

The permitting process for the King William Reservoir became a never-ending roller coaster of denials and approvals pushed forward by lawsuits.

In the late 1980s, Newport News expected to have the reservoir up and running by 2005. In 2005, after years of political and legal wrangling, the city finally received a federal permit to build.

Earlier this year, a U.S. District Court judge sent the permit back to the drawing board, and the Army Corps of Engineers consequently suspended the permit.

"It takes a lot of winning and you can never lose, not even just one time," Morris said about the regulatory process and the court ruling.

"We had full faith that the permit was valid and would stand," Morris said. "It's unusual for a court to overrule the Corps of Engineers. It's really unusual to have a federal judge do something like this."

Frank calls the permitting process for projects the magnitude of the King William Reservoir "fatally flawed" primarily because it requires approvals from a multitude of agencies — all with their own requirements, conditions and stipulations.

"The process ought to be a rational one that allows for some confidence that after a number of years, you have a permitted project," Frank said. "This high level of uncertainty makes it improbable for localities to make this kind of investment."

A third lesson Newport News has learned: As time passes, state and federal administrations change, environmental laws tighten, technology advances and people alter their habits.

"These days, big steps and large projects are extremely difficult to implement," Ramaley said.

The permitting process for the Little Creek Reservoir in James City County, Waterworks' largest project to date, started in 1970 and took about 10 years to build. That was before the federal Clean Water Act governing water pollution was implemented in the 1970s.

A single federal agency should issue permits and oversee regional megaprojects and issue one permanent permit, Frank says.

"The state rather than local government should be the lead agency developing regional water supply," Frank wrote in a June 29 letter to Gov. Timothy M. Kaine.

"The task, if left undone, puts at risk the critical issue of finding adequate water supplies for future generations of Virginians."

Copyright © 2009, Newport News, Va., Daily Press


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