Crozet resident Hanna Clark has launched an online petition aimed at stopping the Rivanna Water and Sewer Authority (RWSA) from constructing a raw water pipeline along the boundaries of her family’s property. A recent WAHS graduate, Clark has lived on land bordering Beaver Creek Reservoir for 17 years and was shocked when her parents received notice from the RWSA that crews would be surveying the property this summer to determine a potential path to connect the pipeline between a pump station in the reservoir and the Crozet Water Treatment Plant.
“I read the letter and immediately burst into tears,” said Clark. “Nothing compares to when eminent domain affects you personally, because it really is just private property theft.”
The RWSA announced a Beaver Creek dam modernization plan two years ago that requires a new labyrinth spillway to be built right through the center of the earthen portion of the dam. The existing 1960s-era pump station, which pumps raw water from the reservoir to the treatment plant on Rt. 240, currently sits at the bottom (or “toe”) of the dam and must be relocated for safety and system resiliency.
“We looked at six potential sites for the new pump station,” said Jennifer Whitaker, director of engineering for the RWSA, “and we considered factors such as physical accessibility, reservoir characteristics at that site (such as depth), the hydraulics of pumping the water to the plant, as well as potential stream and wetland impacts, natural habitats, and potential historic resources in the area.” The site that was selected (see map below) means the pump station will be placed on county land just outside the Clark property line on a peninsula that juts into the reservoir near the dam.
The question now is what path the water will take to reach the treatment plant. Four options are shown by green dotted lines on the map, and each would require a 30-foot wide easement to bury the 16-inch pipeline and to lay an access road (about the width of a driveway) on top. Clark’s main concern is the potential for environmental damage both on and near her family’s land. “I’ve worked in a native plant nursery for two years and I’m pretty familiar with the ecosystem that is thriving here,” she said. “The thought of a red clay scar carving through all of that just breaks my heart.”
The Clark family owns five contiguous parcels of land for a total of about 15 acres, and any of the proposed routes will have to run along portions of their property lines through forests and streams that feed into the reservoir. The RWSA is required to compensate the family for the value of any Clark land that is encroached upon. “My mom sits at the beach of the lake every morning and evening,” said Clark. “We three kids were raised here romping around on that land. No sum of money could make me or my family want to leave.”
Right of Way
Negotiating easements—the right to use private land to make connections between water sources and end users—is a process that the RWSA says will take 12 to 18 months at Beaver Creek. “The idea is to either reuse existing routes, or to go around properties on boundaries,” said Whitaker. “We don’t want to disturb somebody’s ability to use or resell their property or alter its existing or future use. Our goal is to find an equitable solution with landowners.”
The process begins with a physical survey of the access routes and with asking landowners where they would prefer a route be located. “Sometimes there’s a way to come through the property that’s beneficial to the owner, such as if they would like an access road to a certain part of their property,” said Whitaker. “Sometimes they’d like us to avoid certain areas.” As a last resort, the RWSA has eminent domain power because they are a political subdivision—a legal entity of the state of Virginia charged with providing clean water to citizens.
For Clark, there was no negotiating. “The civil engineer in charge of the project called to offer us the ability to request which parts of the land should be avoided, and [the call] didn’t end well,” she said. “I said my recommendation is to ‘stay the hell off our land, how dare you use our land for the profit of big organizations, and you’ll talk to our lawyers.’”
Eminent domain is a legal procedure that requires any disturbed land to be appraised, and the landowner is paid the fair market value of that land. In addition, Virginia has a recent provision for residual property damage in cases where the property suffers a loss of value due to the disturbance. The RWSA has budgeted $36,000 in compensation to property owners based on the 2020 tax assessments of affected parcels for this project. Clark says her opposition to the RWSA’s water access easements is similar to the recent effort to stop construction of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, during which she was strongly anti-pipeline.
“The fight isn’t with people’s right to clean water, it’s with big organizations thinking they have limitless power,” said Clark. “I’m trying to speak for communities whose voices aren’t being heard. The ecosystems and plants and animals don’t have voices.” Beyond environmental impacts, Clark’s petition also asserts that an increased water supply will “enable foreign developers to continue to build their condos and townhouses at the expense of local families who have lived and worked our land for generations.”
Asked what she meant by “foreign developers,” Clark said: “People who are from D.C. or New York or Philadelphia see an investment opportunity in Crozet, buy farmland and develop it, and turn it into something like Old Trail. This pipeline is water for the ‘expected’ growth for the next 50 years, but the reason it’s growing is because the people of Crozet aren’t being heard when they say ‘stop developing our rural towns.’ Stopping this pipeline could be a way of starving developers of the water supply they need to build.”
Water under the bridge
Unlike Dominion Energy in the Atlantic Coast Pipeline saga, the RWSA’s work is dictated by Albemarle County’s decisions on behalf of its citizens. The public agency’s mandate is to build infrastructure to provide the amount of water that is required by the county’s comprehensive plan for growth. “We evaluate the boundaries of the comp plan and from that we project the current and future demand for water,” said Whitaker. The RWSA is a non-profit public corporation, and its funding comes from customer charges for water usage, which are then used to cover the operating and capital costs of providing that water.
Many layers of oversight will govern the Beaver Creek dam project, which is why it will break ground in 2024 at the earliest. The project must receive Virginia Department of Environmental Quality permits, site plan and building permits from the county, and compliance approvals with the comprehensive plan, as well as federal approvals from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Army Corps of Engineers, and the Marine Resource Commission, among others. There are also landscaping and buffer requirements for the replanting of trees around the construction site.
The new pump station itself will be largely underground with a small building at the surface. “The actual functional part will be a concrete structure very deep in the ground,” said Whitaker. “The water will come from piping through screens in the reservoir into a well, and we’ll pump water out of that well up to three to four feet below the surface and then over to the Water Treatment Plant.” The above-ground building will be relatively soundproof, and there will be a “hospital-grade quiet” backup generator on site that will run only if the pump loses power. Whitaker estimates that workers would use the access roads to service the pump station several times a week.
Based on preliminary site selection reports, the RWSA may be able to construct a substantial portion of the pipeline (along the peninsula into the reservoir) on county property, just outside of the Clarks’ boundary line, though the precise path won’t be known for certain until ongoing surveys are complete. Whitaker noted that there will be several opportunities for public comment during agency reviews and project updates this fall, and the RWSA will continue its dialogue with individual property owners as well.
Meanwhile, Clark’s Change.org petition has collected over 200 signatures, and she plans to continue voicing her opposition to the planned easements. “Our best hope at this point is to have the pump site moved to a different location where it won’t affect our neighbors. If anybody should be losing land in this deal, it should be Albemarle County. Our time for making a difference in changing anything is going to have to happen now.”
More information on the Beaver Creek dam and improvements project can be found here: www.rivanna.org/rwsa-projects-map/beaver-creek-improvements/