By Sarah Richardson
Members of the Greenbrier River Trail Association (GRTA), trailgoers, and other citizens packed the Lewisburg City Council chambers at this week’s meeting to voice concerns regarding the upcoming water intake pipe relocation project. The pipe relocation, which is part of the $63.4 million in updates and upgrades to the municipal water plant at Caldwell, will require a two-mile section of the river trail to be closed to foot traffic as 1,100 linear feet of pipe is laid. The new water intake location will be upstream of the landfill and junkyard, and has been in the works for a number of years.
City Manager Misty Hill, Lewisburg Mayor Beverly White, city attorney Tom White, engineer and Senior VP of Chapman Technical Group Greg Belcher, and Regional Director of Region IV Planning and Development Council John Tuggle were on hand to address concerns.
“We heard from the state yesterday that they want the work on the trail to be completed by Feb. 29, 2024,” announced Belcher. “And we will hopefully be in a position at the first of the month [Oct. 1] to start that work.” This is a substantially shorter period of construction time than an originally anticipated 24 months, weather permitting. City officials noted that the contractors are set up with a per-job payment system rather than a time-based system, which will incentivize meeting deadlines in order to be paid.
Belcher also explained that a license agreement with the state and the Division of Natural Resources outlines that the city will be doing several things to “help lessen the impact to citizens,” including constructing “as much parking as we can” at the Harper Road crossing of the river trail at Hopper, which is the next-closest trail access from Caldwell. Temporary parking will be installed until after Nov. 15 due to bats roosting in the area. He anticipates roughly 15 parking spaces going in parallel to the trail on DNR land. There will also be signage installed to notify trail users of the temporary closure and where to safely access the trail.
Nancy Harris, a member of the GRTA, first took the stand to outline her concerns with the project and the impact it will have on trail users. She clarified that she isn’t against the water project, but that she feels that alternate solutions should be explored to allow for trail usage during construction, expediting the project to minimize the time the trail will be closed, mitigation by the city, and increased communication from the city regarding the project. She referenced the floods of 2016 and the subsequent damage caused to the trail, and how during those trail repairs “trail users were accommodated” and “no one was hurt and it worked out well.”
Other speakers voiced that they wanted more details about the construction timeframe for the portion of the water project affecting the GRT specifically, and worries about what a heavy storm could do to damage the trail after it is dug up to accommodate the water pipe. Some said that they don’t understand why the intake pipe needs relocated at all, and suggested that the monies allotted for the relocation could instead be used to bolster the existing water intake pump station.
When asked if the trail could at least remain partially open during construction, engineer Belcher said, “In my opinion, and the contractors, no. I think that this portion of project along the trail is the toughest part of the entire project.”
He explained that they will be burying 20-foot long sections of 2-foot diameter pipe, which weigh roughly 1,800 lbs. apiece, with 42 inches of cover. This means the hole to house the pipe will be nearly 6 feet deep. “There’s going to be a lot of hammering, hauling spoils out, bringing bedding in, and they are going to have to work both ways because not even a passenger car could pass on that trail.” He added that the project is not being prolonged, it has been shortened, and they have done “all we can do to try to condense and minimize the disruption on the trail.”
“It’s really not practical or feasible at all to consider opening the trail every evening or the weekend because the equipment that’s going to be up there is wider than the trail’s surface,” he explained. “We’ll be backing dump trucks up the trail because they can’t turn around to drive out. It’s nowhere near a place for the public to be, this is going to be a tough job, but the reason it’s being done is obvious.”
Some opponents to the project said that the reasons for the project “weren’t obvious,” and they don’t understand why the pipe needs relocated to begin with.
“It is a due diligence even though you don’t believe that we should move it,” said City Manager Hill. “It is not our due diligence for us to wait for a breach of the landfill, or a breach of the salvage yard to say ‘Oops, we should have moved that intake.’”
Belcher said that Chapman Technical Group did a comprehensive plan for the water system around 2008, and that that the sitting Council in 2018 requested looking at relocating the intake pipe.
“The landfill and the junkyard have been there a long time, and it’s just kinda common sense to me,” said Belcher. Councilmember Valerie Pritt clarified that this relocation is about being proactive rather than reactive. Belcher referenced a recent water system threat assessment, noting “that was one of the more critical aspects of your watershed management plan, looking for potential contamination sources. Those are two located within a mile of the intake.”
Hill said that across numerous meetings with the City, the DNR, the State, and other groups, that “we went through everything everyone said tonight, every opportunity.” They did explore attempting to keep the trail open, but it wasn’t found to be feasible.
“We have kicked this can for 20 years, and we are at the point where there is no more kicking it,” said Hill. “We are to the point that last week we were on two boil water advisories. We have pipes that break and a system that is failing us. It’s not if it’s going to happen, it’s when it’s going to happen.”
She said that the current water intake has been repaired six times this year alone. The water plant is currently pumping water anywhere from 18 to 24 hours each day and can only hold about seven hours worth of retained water to keep the city going if the plant stops pumping for any reason. It’s recommended for water plants to pump eight hours each day to allow time for repairs and regular maintenance, a timeframe that the new plant will be able to accommodate, even with the region’s expansion.
“We understand it’s an inconvenience, we do,” said Mayor White, “But it’s something that has to be done. All we are asking for is patience and understanding, and all the work that has needed to be done has been done, and we have to move forward. I know it doesn’t make anybody happy, but water is life. We have to do this project, it’s 20 years gone, and we are losing good days of working as we speak. We are just trying to make sure that we have safe drinking water for all of our citizens. […] To put people on the trail with all this equipment it’s a safety issue for the public and the contractors as well.”
As far as geotechnical work done at the site, Belcher said that geotech work has been completed at the water plant, the location of the proposed site for the public works building, and around the current water intake. “We have a pretty good idea of that generalized area of what things consist of,” he said. ‘[…] If we feel like we get into something during construction that we think could compromise the integrity of the pipeline or the trail, rest assured, we will stop and do our best to take care of it. But our intention is to put that water line in, get everyone safe drinking water, and get the trail opened back up as quickly as possible, and if there was another way to get that water line up the river I promise you I would’ve done it a long time ago.”
City Attorney Tom White explained that the City will be “on the hook” for repairs to that section of the trail after the water intake is moved. If there is intense weather or if that section of the trail is damaged, repairs will be expedited in order to continue and maintain access to fresh water. “You’ve got a vested interest in it, I mean, it’s the drinking water supply line for citizens, so it’ll have to be repaired,” added Belcher.