Albemarle planning commission endorses new hydroelectric plant on the hardware

(This episode was initially posted as part of the June 5, 2021 edition of Charlottesville Community Engagement)

A plan to update  a hydroelectric plant at the Jefferson Mill Dam on the Hardware River obtained a recommendation of approval from the Albemarle Planning Commission on June 1, but not without a tough question intended as a softball. In beginning of the 21st century, construction of dams is strongly discouraged in most cases, with the exception of impoundment for water supply. But the Jefferson Mill Dam dates back to the beginning of the 19th century. Bill Fritz is the county’s development process manager. (staff report)

“The existing dam and the adjacent building date to the 1800’s and the mill building is now used as a home,” Fritz said. 

Power has been generated at the location for much of that time, but the proposal is to update the turbine that’s within an underground water room through which a diverted portion of the river flows. 

“The project will improve the outfall from the water room, install new inlets to bring water to the turbine,” Fritz said. “The applicant has submitted by far the most extensive and complete application I’ve seen in thirty plus years I’ve worked for the county.”

However, the applicant was not quite ready to give a presentation. While not required, it’s customary for a formal presentation to be made when making a land use request. But we’ll hear more about that in a moment. 

Fritz said state agencies found no significant concerns and all potential issues have been resolved. Currently fish and eels cannot swim upstream past this point, but that will change after the work is complete. 

“It’s not the subject of the special use permit but the applicant is proposing to install a ladder on the dam on the opposite side of the river from the mill building,” Fritz said.

In addition to the fish ladder, a ramp for eels will also be installed (Credit: Natel Energy)

 The applicant did not prepare a presentation but was available to answer questions. At first it appeared no one would ask one, but Commissioner Tim Keller went ahead and offered one up. Keller is a professor emeritus of landscape architecture at Iowa State University. 

“Let me preface this by saying that I do support it and this is the great conundrum between cultural resource protection and natural resource protection that I spent my professional lifetime thinking about,” Keller said. “But just to be a devil’s advocate here, wouldn’t best practices here be to remove this dam? Best environmental practice be to remove this dam completely?”

Fritz said that did not come up during the discussion with state agencies. The project manager said there was no compelling reason to remove the dam based on this application. 

“The studies that we’ve done thus far and the information that’s publicly available indicates that the dam is not a huge hindrance to species, especially species of concern, going upstream any farther due to the amount of dams that are below the Jefferson site,” said Jessica Pendrod of Natel Energy. 

Keller was satisfied with the answer, but civil engineer Joseph Head jumped on the Zoom call to offer this response.

“The best practices would probably be to tell us to tear up all of our freeways and turn them into meadows full of butterflies,” said Joseph Head. “But that would make it hard to get your truck around if you did that. So it’s a balance between human existence and the animals.” 

Head said the stone dam has withstood years of being pummeled by the Hardware, which he called a “flashy” river that can go from an easy stream to a raging torrent in hours if there’s enough rainfall.

“This dam’s actually totally amazing,” Head said. “These guys built this and did it my hand 200 years ago. It’s just rock and mortar and it’s still there. This river has been pounding on this dam for 200 years and it’s still there.”

Commissioner Karen Firehock also supported the project, but said that the best practice would be to at least study a partial removal of the dam.

“From an environmental perspective, the best option would be a partial breach of this dam so that we don’t have a dam across the river and if anyone wants to study this, there are a multitude of dams that have been come down in Virginia including some major ones,” Firehock said. “There’s a whole host of problems that occur from warming water behind the dam, from preventing migration and passage, from trapping sediments, sometimes which are contaminated.”

Firehock supported the upgrade of the powerplant but did not want that vote to be interpreted as support for continued existence of dams.

“Just because something is historic doesn’t mean we should maintain it,” Firehock said. “There are historic coal mines. No one would make an argument for maintaining all of our historic coal mines so I just don’t think that argument holds water so to speak.”

To learn more about the dam removal at the Rivanna River, visit the Rivanna Conservation Alliance

You can watch the whole item on the Albemarle County YouTube page

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