The Bulletin

Estimates from government officials are no more, no less than that

By: - July 26, 2022 12:03 am


Another embarrassing result has befallen the government officials who tried for decades, unsuccessfully, to erect a mammoth reservoir in King William County. The project ultimately disintegrated in 2009.

The city of Newport News has begun selling off the nearly 1,500 acres it acquired, but at just a fraction of the $8.3 million it paid for the land with public money. The city spent a total of $51 million on the overall project.

Talk about taking a bath.

I was on the (Newport News) Daily Press editorial board from 1998 to 2000, when the momentum was still strong to build the the 12.2 billion gallon reservoir. The board was a vocal, steadfast supporter of the public works project, despite the numerous groups that lambasted it. The latter included the Mattaponi tribe, environmentalists and residents in the area.

Newport News Waterworks is the city-owned regional supplier of drinking water. A colleague of mine used to joke that agency officials loved visiting board members because we were some of the few friendly faces waterworks officials encountered back then.

Their pleas, though heartfelt, were very speculative: We desperately need this guaranteed water source for residents. New businesses won’t come here without it. Better safe than sorry.

Looking back, I question whether my board colleagues and I were too dismissive of the legitimate concerns from detractors. They included the possible overestimates of water needed this century; the destruction of more than 400 acres of wetlands, which would’ve been the largest authorized in Virginia since the Clean Water Act of the 1970s; and the impact on cultural sites important to Native Americans.

Hindsight, you know.

As it turns out, energy-efficient appliances, like toilets, reduced water consumption. The opening of a desalinization plant in the area in the late 1990s also helped. As The Virginian-Pilot just reported: “By the time the project ended in 2009, officials realized that the demand for water in the region was less than it had been in the late 1990s, according to waterworks director Yann Le Gouellec.”

The early estimates weren’t malicious, just wrong. Bureaucrats want to safeguard utilities as vital as drinking water, electricity and more. Besides, you can’t always predict the future from decades beforehand.

That’s important to recognize – for government officials and residents alike.

This story has been corrected to note that Newport News spent $8.3 million on the land acquisition. The remainder of the $51 million went toward project development costs.

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Roger Chesley
Roger Chesley

Longtime columnist and editorial writer Roger Chesley worked at the (Newport News) Daily Press and The (Norfolk) Virginian-Pilot from 1997 through 2018. He previously worked at newspapers in Cherry Hill, N.J., and Detroit. Reach him at [email protected]