Newport News should focus on existing reservoirs and facilities
August 30, 2009
Sabine Hirschauer is to be commended for the recent series of articles on the King William Reservoir. Aside from some important omissions and at least one unfortunate inclusion, the articles presented a reasonable review of the history of the project.
However, the Diane Cebula video of former Newport News City Manager Randy Hildebrandt talking about the project admitted an important point that did not receive adequate attention in the series. Hildebrandt admitted that the reality on which the project was based had already changed by the mid 1990s. Federal standards for ultra-low-flow toilets and low-flow shower heads and faucets were in place, a presidential directive insured that federal demand would be decreasing, and rules for more efficient washing machines, etc., had already been drafted. More importantly, industrial and commercial firms were reducing demand significantly.
As a result, Newport News water sales were dropping significantly before the 1996 Supplement to the Draft Environmental Impact Statement or the 1997 Final EIS were published. At that time, the city had already thrown $12 million to $14 million at the project and chose to resolutely stand behind projections based on 1980s water use. Newport News refused to acknowledge the new reality that a large additional water source would not be needed for the Peninsula.
Newport News has now spent an additional $37 million on the project with possibly millions more to spend to close out the project. More unfortunately, during the interim, city and Waterworks administrations have focused their attention and spending on the reservoir project. As water revenues fell, operational and maintenance positions in Waterworks were left empty and important maintenance and upgrade issues were ignored. Not surprisingly, Walkers Dam on the Chickahominy River failed at a cost of $12 million to $13 million, and now we find that the Lee Hall dams are failing, threatening many hundreds of residents who live near the Warwick River and its tributaries, and posing a large repair cost.
Today we understand that the Waterworks operational staff is stretched thin and demoralized. Furthermore, Waterworks customers must now pay for the money wasted on the reservoir plus the cost of catch-up maintenance on existing infrastructure. Hildebrandt and Waterworks Director Brian Ramaley have a lot to answer for.
Where to go from here? Because of the drop in water use, the Peninsula has adequate supply for a long time to come. Water use can be expected to continue to drop, in spite of growth, until most of those old inefficient toilets, washing machines, etc., have been replaced. Newport News should get back to focusing on maintaining and operating its current reservoirs and facilities.
Phillips lives in Yorktown.
Copyright © 2009, Newport News, Va., Daily Press