( 2 Votes )

 

Fluvanna’s water issue has come to the forefront following recent votes by the county’s Board of Supervisors. But for every citizen with a passionate opinion about water there are even more who aren’t sure what to think. After all, different water plans have been bandied about for years. How are folks who don’t work in local government and can’t make it to the myriad meetings supposed to keep abreast of such a constantly developing situation?
With that in mind, the Fluvanna Review has put together its very own crash course. Armed with this Water Survival Guide, Fluvanna citizens can show up at the public hearing, deliver moving and well-reasoned speeches, and impact the future of Fluvanna County for generations. Or at least impress their friends.
Why do we need more water?
Homeowners in Fluvanna already know that the bill for county services such as schools and safety fall squarely on their shoulders: About 90 percent of the county’s revenue is generated through real estate taxes, compared to the 70 percent in “healthy” localities. And that means that as costs go up, homeowners find themselves looking at tax increases year after year.
“It’s an unbalanced tax base,” explained Supervisor Joe Chesser. “There’s no real business ratio to this county. The tax base is really the property owner, and that’s further diluted by those who own large properties because they have a different, lower tax rate.”
To change this situation, the county needs to attract new businesses, preferably to the Zion Crossroads area. Unfortunately, no business wants to locate somewhere without niceties such as toilets and running water. And Fluvanna doesn’t have those things in business-sized amounts at Zion Crossroads – or, for that matter, in the rest of the county.
As taxes spiral ever upward, homeowners crave relief. The best way to find relief is to bring businesses, and thereby business taxes, to the county. And the only way to bring businesses to the county is to have water and sewer available for their use.
This sounds familiar.
Have we been through this before?

Fluvanna has been struggling with water issues for more years than people can remember. In 1966 residents of Fork Union passed a referendum to create the Fork Union Sanitary District, or FUSD (pronounced “fuzz-dee”). Part of their taxes went towards an intake valve in the James River, though Fork Union residents themselves still did not have running water. But in 1969 Hurricane Camille washed away Fluvanna’s water treatment plant. The county rebuilt, but in 1972 Hurricane Agnes destroyed this second plant as well. At that point, recalled Supervisor Mozell Booker, Fluvanna abandoned the valve idea and turned instead to groundwater.
FUSD went to work digging wells, though all did not go smoothly at first. “We had a lot of problems with those wells in the beginning,” Booker recollected. “People’s clothes were turning a funny color till we got that straight.” FUSD still services over 400 customers, but the infrastructure and equipment is wearing out. “We have not maintained the wells with the filters they need,” Booker stated. “We have three individuals who keep those wells running. Those guys are on duty 24 hours a day, digging holes and patching pipes and keeping the water flowing.”
In the late 1990s, proponents pushed for the incoming women’s prison to be located in Fork Union rather than its current location on Rt. 250. They knew that a prison in Fork Union would not only bring jobs but would also force a solution to the area’s water woes. “There were people who fought against the jail,” Booker remembered. “They thought the women would break out and that it would bring more drugs into the county… If the [women’s prison] referendum hadn’t been defeated, we would have had water in Fluvanna County. Then we could have moved it up to wherever we wanted it to go.”
Over time the water conversation changed. Rather than simply trying to find water to service existing citizens, the dialogue became about attracting businesses to Fluvanna. Beginning around 2003, Fluvanna considered a partnership with Louisa County in which both localities would pay for a pipeline to run water from the James River, at a cost to Fluvanna of at least $33 million. In 2009, the counties formed the James River Water Authority (JRWA), which consisted of three members from each locality. Fraught with political controversy, however, the JRWA and its pipeline plan fell apart in 2010.
According to former Supervisor Marvin Moss, “You have to look at [the water] issue in light of the really amazing demographic changes that have taken place in the county. In 1991, Fluvanna’s population was just over 12,000. Now it’s 26,000. That’s a huge increase in percentage. The issues that have swirled around the schools, the water line, and taxes are very much related to that very rapid growth. In many cases decisions were postponed by the Board of Supervisors, and finally when you get around to doing something, like building the new high school, it’s very expensive.”
If we’ve gone this long without solving the water problem, why not wait a little longer?
Counties can’t just go down to rivers and start pulling out water. Instead, they have to apply for a permit from the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) and hope that they receive permission. In 2006, Fluvanna successfully obtained a permit to withdraw three million gallons per day (GPD) from the James River. Soon after, it signed the permit over to the JRWA.
Permits don’t last forever, and in June of 2021 this permit will expire. And competition for such permits amongst localities can be fierce. After all, the James doesn’t have an unlimited supply of water. “If this permit is allowed to expire,” explained Public Works Director Wayne Stephens, “then the concern is that someone else who has been waiting in line would get first crack at that allocation.”
County Administrator Steve Nichols put it bluntly: “It’s hard to imagine a scenario” in which an expired permit would be reissued to Fluvanna or the JRWA. Given that reality, Fluvanna is in a “use it or lose it” scenario.
Well, then, what are our water options?
Currently there are three options under consideration.
JRWA pipeline from the James River (just approved by the Board of Supervisors)
Details: Under this proposal, Fluvanna and Louisa would partner through the JRWA to construct both an intake facility at the James River and a pipeline, ending in a junction, roughly to Rt. 6. The intake facility and pipeline would have a capacity of three million GPD and would be jointly owned by Fluvanna and Louisa. At the junction, Louisa would construct its own pipeline at its own expense, which would run north-northeast through Fluvanna to Louisa. And Fluvanna would have the option to construct its own pipeline at the junction, moving water throughout the county. Fluvanna could also pay to tap into Louisa’s water line within Fluvanna County.
The DEQ permit currently specifies the intake point at Bremo Bluff. Under this plan, the intake point would have to be switched to Columbia, a process that could take about six months. The JRWA pipeline plan would not solve water woes in the short term and so would likely be adopted alongside another water plan. Supervisors voted on this plan on Sept. 18.
Cost: About $1.75 million for Fluvanna County. Any future Fluvanna pipeline would come with additional costs.
Pros:
Supervisor Don Weaver stated that “the ultimate solution for water in this county is the James River,” though he does not necessarily support this proposal. So under this plan, Fluvanna would have a financial partner in this “ultimate solution,” sharing the costs of the intake facility and small pipeline with another locality, rather than bearing the entire cost on its own. “Eventually we could run a line up Rt. 6 to Carysbrook, and push it back down to Fork Union and up north,” said Chesser. “To me, it makes sense to contribute $2 million and make sure we have access to [the water]. That’s a no-brainer.”
Proactively partnering with Louisa also comes with an advantage, according to Nichols, because it is quite possible that Louisa could run a pipeline through Fluvanna without Fluvanna’s consent. Precedent exists in Virginia, he said, for counties without access to their own water to obtain it from sources in nearby and sometimes unwilling counties.
Cons: Louisa’s pipeline would run across 76 parcels of Fluvanna land. Some citizens are concerned with giving another locality eminent domain in Fluvanna. Of course, if Louisa were to pursue legal action and construct this pipeline over Fluvanna’s protests, it would still, in theory, be granted eminent domain over certain Fluvanna properties.
According to Weaver, “Louisa really needs to help out more” if it wants access to Fluvanna’s water. According to long range planner Jay Lindsey, in a similar situation, the city of Virginia Beach paid host county Isle of Wight $3 million over five years for the ability to run a pipeline through Isle of Wight’s land. Louisa is not offering any such money to Fluvanna.
Elizabeth Franklin, candidate in the Columbia district for the Board of Supervisors, questioned the wisdom of moving the intake point to Columbia from Bremo Bluff. Since Columbia is closer to Louisa, Louisa is pushing for this change to save itself money. But Bremo Bluff is closer to Fork Union, where Fluvanna could really use the water. “Why in the world should Fluvanna agree to move the permit?” she asked. “By [doing so], we’re increasing our own costs to address Fork Union’s problems by $4 to $5 million,” she estimated.
Agreement with the Department of Corrections (DOC)
Details: Currently, the DOC isn’t using all of its water. Under this agreement, it would provide 75,000 GPD of treated water to the Zion Crossroads area. It would also provide 100,000 GPD (down from 125,000 GPD) of wastewater treatment (sewerage).
Supervisors already voted on July 3 to move ahead with this proposal; however, the vote simply kept the option open rather than binding the Board to any action. Also, with its provision of sewerage, the DOC option is necessary to the Aqua Virginia option (see below), which does not provide sewerage. If the Aqua Virginia option is passed, the DOC option will almost certainly go forward as well.
Cost: According to Nichols, the current working estimate, which includes three years of operating costs, is $4.6 million, likely financed over 20 years.
Pros: Between the two plans currently under consideration for Zion Crossroads, the DOC option is far cheaper. It could be seven to nine years, stated Nichols, before these 75,000 GPD are maxed out. If that is true, the other plan’s much larger amount of water at much higher cost could be seen as overkill.
Cons: According to Chesser, the DOC’s “ability to provide 75,000 GPD is debatable” given that its draw point is the Mechunk Creek, which sometimes experiences issues during droughts. “When push comes to shove the DEQ may take a look at that [75,000 GPD].”
A significant objection to this plan, or to passing this plan alone, is that economic development advocates such as Chesser assert that 75,000 GPD isn’t enough water to “do anything really big” but is rather “life as usual.” According to the Virginia Economic Development Partnership, Chesser said, counties that want to attract real, sustainable economic development need to have at least a 500,000 GPD capacity. And if the whole purpose of bringing water to Zion Crossroads is to attract businesses significant enough to ease the homeowner tax burden, Chesser wants to be sure that the water needed to do so is available.
Agreement with Aqua Virginia
Details: Aqua Virginia, the company that currently provides water and sewer to Lake Monticello, has offered to provide 500,000 GPD of water from the Rivanna River to the Zion Crossroads area. This agreement does not include sewerage, so the DOC option, or another sewerage plan, would need to be passed in conjunction with this agreement. The Board held a public hearing on Sept. 18 to discuss the deal and then voted to delay a vote on the proposal.
Cost: About $20 million financed over 20 years. Booker believes that the roughly one-million-per-year price tag will lessen over the 20-year span as more and more customers sign on. Critics of the deal, however, believe it will end up costing significantly more than $20 million.
Pros: The Aqua Virginia plan has the benefit of making available enough water to attract economic development significant enough to reduce the homeowner tax burden. After all, tax relief is the goal of this whole process.
Chesser pointed out also that expanding Aqua Virginia’s customer base could alleviate the future increases in the high rates paid by current Aqua Virginia customers at Lake Monticello.
Cons:
As already mentioned, this deal is seen as overkill by those who believe that the DOC option offers enough water and sewer to get economic development started.
Also, throughout Lake Monticello, there is substantial resistance to the idea of deliberately partnering with a company that many loathe. Those who dislike Aqua Virginia point to service problems and high rates. For example, a family of five pays about $165 per month for water and sewer. But others say that the anger towards Aqua Virginia is unfounded, and question whether Lake Monticello residents are confusing Aqua Virginia with Aqua Source. “When Lake Monticello ran its own system, the waste was going into the lake,” recalled Booker. “Aqua Source took it over and never did what they were supposed to do. They went bankrupt. But Aqua Source has nothing to do with Aqua Virginia, which spent $18 million to fix up the system. They saved Lake Monticello.” Having put that much money into the Lake’s system, some say it’s only fair for Aqua Virginia to recoup its cost through high rates.
Perhaps most troublesome are the legal objections to the agreement raised by County Attorney Fred Payne, who has stated that he “absolutely will not agree to [sign] it unless ordered by the Board… I will not approve it; you would have to order me to approve it.” Nichols has also recommended against this proposal, noting that after 20 years of million-dollar payments, the county would own nothing.
Citing several concerns with the Aqua proposal, Franklin believes “there is no way that the Aqua deal can ever make money.” Left out of the $20 million price estimate, Franklin said, are several costly items: a sewer treatment plant that the county would need to construct when the 100,000 GPD capacity from the DOC is eventually overrun, lift stations to move water and sewage up hills, and most of all, lateral lines. “Aqua proposes to build only a main trunk line into the Zion Crossroads Community Planning Area,” she explained. “Our county will have to pay to lay laterals along any roads other than Rt. 250 where the Aqua main will be… The business owner or homeowner does not pay for lines except those that extend from his/her business or home to the road out front. Because the proposal calls for mandatory hook-ups for new construction,” this cost to the county could run to tens of millions,” Franklin estimated.
How will these plans impact my tax bill?
Well, in the short run, taxes will have to go up. All of these plans cost money, and the way the county gets money is by raising taxes. The hope is that, over the long run, the tax burden on homeowners will decrease as businesses start contributing more and more revenue. Obviously, people disagree over whether or not the various plans will bring about the intended result.
But can our county afford to have our taxes go any higher?
That’s another debatable question. Some say no, the county can’t afford any higher taxes. Supervisor Bob Ullenbruch stated that “we need a shovel to dig ourselves out of where we are at today... We are well over $100 million in debt.” He went on to warn citizens that tax money for water plans would no longer be available to go toward increased expenditures for schools or other county services, and asked if people were willing to “bite the bullet” and refrain from budget increases for five years or more.
Others say that the county can’t afford not to act. Keeping things the way they are will result in homeowners paying ever-increasing taxes for, as some claim, ever-decreasing quality in services such as schools. Supervisor Shaun Kenney declared that a way to get out of a financial hole is to “buy a ladder.” He believes that the Aqua Virginia plan is just such a ladder.
The unfortunate catch-22 is that if taxes get too high, either because of costly water plans or because of doing nothing, businesses will no longer wish to set up shop in Fluvanna. It will be cheaper for them to go elsewhere. Also, potential new residents will decide to move to different counties with lower tax rates – a phenomenon that will drive down home values.
Isn’t there some way we can predict what will happen?
Just last month the county received its new return on investment (ROI) study, which examined the fiscal impact of moving forward with both the Aqua Virginia and the DOC proposals. As stated in the ROI, its purpose is to “provide insight to local decision-makers to determine if the proposed water and sewer-line would be cost-effective for the county.”
The ROI allows people to plug in different values in different areas and take a look at the results. It’s important to understand that the default numbers in the ROI as it is posted online are merely placeholders. According to Nichols, “The ROI posted online still contains placeholder assumptions only and the results shown with those assumptions should not be considered valid in any way. The model is ready for actual modeling with new connection fee, tax rate, property value, water/sewer rate, and growth assumptions to assess the impact of various scenarios.”
Supervisors seem to agree that the ROI is an excellent tool but not the be-all and end-all.  “The ROI does a good job of looking at all the facts and bringing things to light,” said Weaver, “just once you start plugging figures in it will show whatever you want.”
“It’s a good guide but that doesn’t tell you exactly what’s going to happen up there [in Zion Crossroads],” Booker agreed.
Summing it up, Chesser stated that ultimately the ROI shows “guesses.” And what’s more, “all the guesses thus far show that we need to do something at Zion Crossroads. The rest is subjective. Do we want to do this or not?”
So what should I do?
Appreciate that the situation is complicated, and realize that pretty much everyone is acting according to their true beliefs about what is best for the county.