Water deal sparks debate

Published 8:43 am Wednesday, August 19, 2009

ISLE OF WIGHT—When the Isle of Wight County Board of Supervisors meets on Thursday night, it will more than likely endorse a controversial water deal between the Western Tidewater Water Authority and the City of Norfolk.

Whether the deal will be a boon or a bane to the county is open to interpretation.

Smithfield Supervisor Al Casteen figures that he will be the only member of the board to vote against the 40-year, 15-million-gallons-per-day agreement between Norfolk and the WTWA, which serves the county and the City of Suffolk. He believes the county has plenty of surplus water capacity already and is challenging projected growth figures.

Meanwhile, other board members and county officials are lining up in support of the water deal and accuse Casteen of using old data to try and stir up opposition to the plan.

“I suspect that this will be the most expensive mistake the county has made in its history, in terms of one fell swoop,” Casteen said Monday during an interview with The Tidewater News. “I certainly hope a mistake like this doesn’t happen again. I wish there was a way out of it this time, but I don’t see one.”

The county currently uses a half-million gallons per day, and WTWA provides up to 3 million gallons per day from several sources — surface water in Suffolk, groundwater permits and a Suffolk contract with the City of Portsmouth — to meet that need.

It’s a need Casteen says can be met without the new agreement with Norfolk.

“The real problem with the new water deal is that there is a very good chance that the county will not need or use any of the additional water that will supposedly be provided,” Casteen said.

The Smithfield supervisor said previous reports to the county board by consultants indicate Isle of Wight has plenty of water to meet its current needs and has more than enough to accommodate anticipated growth at the Shirley T. Holland Intermodal Park near Windsor.

One of the reports cited by Casteen is the Master Water and Sewer Plan, created for the county in September 2007 by the consulting firm R. Stuart Royer & Associates Inc., now Malcolm Pirnie Inc. of White Plains, N.Y.

According to RSR&A, the county would be able to sufficiently meet the water needs of the Windsor Development Service District, which includes the intermodal park, by obtaining one million gallons of water per day from the WTWA.

Casteen also cited a report and e-mails in March from Red Oak Consulting, now also owned by Malcolm Pirnie. In one e-mail dated March 19, a consultant told Casteen that if the demand for water continued at its current pace “it is very unlikely that future demands will exceed the existing contracted water demand of 3 million gallons per day annual average over the next 40 years.”

Said Casteen, “We already have it covered. The consultants did show that the county would exceed 3 million gallons per day in the year 2040 or so, but only if the county has and maintains an unprecedented growth rate of five percent a year. I don’t think anyone can make a case that Isle of Wight is growing at five or 10 percent now and will absolutely continue that growth rate over the next 30 or 40 years.”

Don Robertson, spokesman for Isle of Wight County, said the information presented during the Board of Supervisors meeting on Aug. 6 provided the most accurate picture of the county’s future water needs.

“That is the latest and greatest information that we have,” Robertson said Tuesday. “Those numbers not only relate to residential and commercial customers, but also to industrial users. We are going to exceed the need if certain types of industrial users come on line at the intermodal park.”

On Aug. 6, the engineering firm Moffit & Nichol said the intermodal park could eventually require between 2 million to 5 million gallons of water per day. The range depends on what types of industries build there and when.

But Robertson emphasized that Moffit & Nichol’s figures do not include whatever industry could eventually come to the 1,600 acres owned by Norfolk Southern Corp. that are adjacent to the intermodal park.

“Their numbers are not even factored in to the need,” Robertson said of Norfolk Southern. “They haven’t come to us to say what types of industry they are courting. Whatever user or users are eventually coming to that property will be over and above what we are looking for.”

Windsor Supervisor Thomas Wright, who also serves as chairman of the WTWA board and helped negotiate the deal with Norfolk, said he did not know how actively Norfolk Southern was trying to market its property but that the new water deal would “absolutely” have a positive effect on that company’s efforts to develop it.

“I think we made an excellent choice,” Wright said Tuesday. “We have lost industrial opportunities because we did not have the water in years past. We don’t want to be stifled. I hope we are visionaries. There have been some complaints, but most of the people know that this deal is right for the future.”

Although he didn’t mention Casteen by name, Wright added, “I really think a lot of people realize that information from a certain individual is inaccurate. That’s old information. We have two hospitals coming to the county along with new houses, some of which weren’t even factored in.”

Robertson concurred. “We have attempted to rely on the subject matter experts,” he said. “We wanted them to come to the (Aug. 6) meeting and make their presentation so that not only would the board have the benefit of that information, but the public would too. We wanted to get this information out there to avoid having people second guess the subject matter experts, or to develop their own numbers internally.”

He added, “If you have water available, then industry will look at you. If you have that carrot to dangle out there, it’s very likely that industry will come to you. We didn’t have that carrot 10 years ago.”

Casteen, however, isn’t convinced.

“SPSA is going to look like the deal of the century compared to this,” he said. “At least with SPSA, they did take our trash. We’re not even going to use this water.”