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Louisa’s water project: big cost, great promise

Posted on Wednesday, November 29, 2017 at 5:54 pm

The Ferncliff water treatment plant should be complete by June 2018, but it will be as long as two years after that date before water from the James River actually arrives.

 The James River Water Project has the potential to be the most significant public works undertaking in Louisa County’s history.

At an initial cost of $66 million, the project isn’t close to past milestones such as the construction of Interstate 64 in terms of dollars spent. But the long-term impact on the county’s economy and character may be greater.

When the work is done, a pipeline will carry water from the river’s edge in Fluvanna County to residents and businesses in Ferncliff and Zion Crossroads who now rely on wells. In the future, Louisa County could decide to extend the pipeline to Lake Anna and other growth areas to feed water demand there.

County leaders envision the water project will trigger economic development in the growth areas and provide a positive return on the investment. At the same time, officials want to keep intensive development out of the county’s rural areas.

It is difficult to quantify what the payoff from the water project will be, or when it will be felt in the county’s coffers. The county has not done a return on investment study.

Progress is being made, with the pipeline now in place along Rt. 250 (Three Notch Road) and the Ferncliff water treatment plant 60 percent complete. Work is also underway on the raw water pipeline between Ferncliff and Rt. 6 in Fluvanna County, near the river.

Though most of the project will be finished in 2018, the entire infrastructure will not be complete until at least 2020, a date that has shifted forward due to delays.

The United States Army Corps of Engineers has yet to issue a permit to pull water from the James River and funnel it into a pipeline. The federal agency won’t do so until a cultural resources study is completed at the location in Fluvanna County where the pipeline is to begin its journey northward.

Centuries ago, this was the site of a Native American community called Rassawek, an important trading center for the Monacan Nation. The Monacan and several other Virginia tribes are working with the state Department of Historic Resources to determine if there are artifacts or human remains in the pipeline’s path. If there are, the artifacts need to be documented, and the remains must be moved.

“We’re moving through the process, which involves developing a plan and consulting with any interested parties regarding what the approach [should be] to any historic artifacts or remains that may be identified,” Christian Goodwin, Louisa County administrator, said. “We are moving as quickly as the regulatory process will permit.”

Karenne Wood, director of Indian programs for the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, is a Monacan Nation historian and is paying close attention to what investigators find at Rassawek. The site is also known as Point of Fork, where the Rivanna and James rivers converge.

“People call it an Indian village, but it was really large, the site of major trade fairs when tribes would get together,” Wood said. “It’s a hugely significant site.”

After the Army Corps permit is issued, the county’s lead contractor for the James River project, Faulconer Construction Company, will have a narrow window within which to install an intake in the river to send water onshore. The James River Water Authority’s agreement with the state Department of Environmental Quality does not allow stream disturbance for several months between spring and late summer, to protect endangered aquatic species.

While they wait for the water to flow, the Louisa County Board of Supervisors needs to determine which property owners will be located within the bounds of service areas, and thus compelled to receive their water from the county. People who already have drilled wells to serve their homes or businesses won’t have to switch. But a location within the service area will enhance people’s ability to develop their land.

Zion Crossroads is the Louisa County Water Authority’s only defined service area so far, not including the town of Louisa, which buys water from the LCWA and requires residents and businesses to connect.

Besides development potential, service area boundaries have the potential to dramatically increase property values. It’s unclear whether values will eclipse the stratospheric levels already reached in Zion Crossroads, where public water has been available from wells since early in the last decade.

The 39-acre R.S. Glass property, on the east side of Route 15 (James Madison Highway) near Route 250 (Three Notch Road) in Zion Crossroads, provides a striking illustration of how the area’s property values skyrocketed when public water arrived.

This is a partial story. Read more in The Central Virginian’s Nov. 30, 2017 issue