RWSA Updates Public on Beaver Creek Dam Plan

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An aerial map showing a potential alternative route when Browns Gap Turnpike across Beaver Creek Dam will be closed for dam renovations.

At a December 10 public meeting held on Zoom, Bill Mawyer, executive director of the Rivanna Water and Sewer Authority (RWSA), and a slew of engineers described the dam replacement project at Beaver Creek reservoir and answered questions from citizens who called or wrote in to the meeting. The venture, which goes by the unwieldy name Beaver Creek Dam Pump Station and Piping Modification Project, is still in the planning stages and has recently added an additional layer of study to its agenda.

Constructed in 1963, the 60-foot high dam has a drainage area 10 square miles extending east towards Ivy. As J. R. Collins of Schnabel Engineering explained, Beaver Creek Dam has been classified as a “high-hazard dam” in Virginia because a dam failure would cause probable loss of human life or serious economic damage downstream. “The Beaver Creek dam spillway must be able to sustain a ‘probable maximum precipitation’ event in which 24 hours of rainfall produces about 30 inches of rain,” said Collins. “While this might seem like a very unlikely event, Hurricane Camille in 1969 dropped about 25 inches of rain overnight in this area, so events like these do happen.”

The old dam will be replaced by a labyrinth spillway system that will necessitate moving the pump station to a location above the dam (from where it sits below the dam now) and replacing the road section on Browns Gap Turnpike that runs across the top of the dam. The $27 million project will likely begin construction in 2024. The RWSA recently applied to be included in a conservation-based federal program to help defray some of that cost.

The dam and pump house at Beaver Creek Reservoir on Browns Gap Turnpike. Photo: Malcolm Andrews.

In 2020 the project was accepted into the national Watershed Rehabilitation Program, which helps project sponsors rehabilitate aging dams that are reaching the end of their design lives. One of the requirements for being in the program is an extensive self-study called a Supplemental Watershed Planning Study. “We began the planning study in 2020, which, when complete, will allow the RWSA to be eligible to apply for federal funding through the federal Natural Resources Conservation Service for the design and construction of our selected alternative,” said Victoria Fort, senior civil engineer for the RWSA.

The supplemental study required by the NRCS will analyze a wide variety of factors about the dam and spillway and its surroundings, including its performance and integrity during storm events, environmental impacts during construction, and economic and social benefits to the community. The RWSA’s timeline projects that 2021 will be spent evaluating the existing structure and forming alternative plans, as well as presenting the preferred alternatives to the public (likely in the fall), submitting the supplemental watershed plan to authorities next spring, and beginning the final design phase in the summer of 2022.

Community concerns

The project plans released so far have generated a few concerns among the dam’s neighbors, chief among them the necessary closure of Browns Gap Turnpike for an extended period during construction. (See the Gazette’s October 2020 article for more detail.) One solution proposed by residents is to use an old parallel roadbed that runs down into the hollow below the dam and up the other side, a road that RWSA staff are currently using from the north side to get down to the raw water pump station. Though an old bridge abutment still stands, an actual road bridge across the water would have to be built.

The RWSA is considering the alternative route, though they say it would be expensive, potentially as much as $1 million to construct. “As part of a project evaluating whether that old road alignment and bridge abutment could be used as a temporary construction detour, we know that this will involve significant grading to comply with VDOT’s requirements for width and sight distances,” said Fort. “It will also rely on those old bridge abutments being sufficiently safe to support a bridge over Beaver Creek, so that will need further study.”

At the December 10 meeting, several residents spoke about their concerns and advocated strongly for the temporary road (instead of simply rerouting traffic over to Rt. 810 and through Crozet). Fort read letters received from Jim Abell, Lowry and Jeanette Abell, Paige Ragsdale, and Ed Brooking of Early Dawn Dairy, all of whom asked for serious consideration of the temporary road. Mawyer also mentioned that Virginia state delegate Chris Runion expressed a request to keep Browns Gap Turnpike open at a recent meeting with the RWSA.

Beaver Creek Reservoir. Photo: Malcolm Andrews.

When the floor was opened to online meeting attendees, Heather Adams said that she has a medically fragile child and was worried about fire and rescue vehicles taking longer to get to the area if a detour was in place, and she has concerns about the safety of school buses having to travel up White Hall Road and along the narrower Jones Mill Road. “Also, it will take double the time to get to work in Charlottesville, and I worry about the environmental impact on sediment and aquatic life downstream of this project,” she said. 

RWSA Director of Engineering Jennifer Whitaker noted that the environmental impact of the project has been extensively studied, and that the construction site itself will be highly regulated at the state, federal, and local levels to ensure sediment will be controlled on site. “The Virginia Department of Environmental Quality, the Department of Wildlife Resources, and the Army Corps of Engineers are all monitoring this project,” she said.

Jennifer Williams, a resident of Jones Mill Road, had concerns about the potential for increased traffic on that road if a proposed alternative is not approved. “Even if [Jones Mill] is not designated as a detour it will be chosen by many, and it just cannot support that,” she said. “It’s a gravel road, one lane in places, gullies on the sides.” Ed Brooking chimed in to agree with Williams, saying that using the road would be “disastrous, and very dangerous. You’d have to take Rt. 810/811 to Rt. 680 and take a right to come back this way, and that will not work with tractor trailers.”

Dr. Chris Scott spoke to stress that the extra time that re-routed fire and rescue vehicles would have to take is a critical problem. “It might be difference between life and death,” he said. “Thanks for considering [building the alternative road], even if it’s keeping a one-lane road open with stoplights on each end.”  

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