By John Munn
Measure I is on the ballot, but the main question in the March 5 election is whether Davis needs or can afford to triple its water rates. If you have a city services bill, you can determine how much you are paying for water. Then multiply by 3 to see the minimum you would eventually be paying.
Measure I directs the Davis City Council to proceed with the Davis-Woodland surface water supply project. But it contains no information about why surface water is needed, what the project includes, how much it is going to cost, or how high water rates must go to pay for it. In effect, the City Council is asking for a blank check. The Yolo County Taxpayers Association, however, wants you to know about these matters.
Davis currently relies entirely on water pumped from wells. Most users agree that the mineral content of this groundwater is noticeable, but there are many different opinions about taste and suitability for various uses.
An early rationale for the surface water project was complying with new waste discharge requirements set by the Regional Water Quality Control Board, with selenium in groundwater being the most immediate concern. It seems odd that an unelected board can threaten to fine cities, while state law requires public approval of funds needed for compliance. But regardless of this Catch-22, Davis city staff and consultants have determined that mixing water from different wells will meet the selenium discharge requirements. So, surface water is not needed to meet discharge standards.
Next, the project was justified by questioning the sustainability of water from deeper aquifers that the city is now using. Groundwater studies don’t support this, so it requires assuming future problems to justify bringing in surface water.
Now, there is a contention that the project is needed to prevent losing recently acquired rights to Sacramento River water. This, however, ignores a long history of water rights acquisition and later use which, again, requires assuming future problems to justify a project today.
So, as yet, building a surface water project does not seem necessary!
Let’s also consider cost. The Woodland-Davis surface water project cost was initially set at about $320 million, with the Davis share being about $150 million, more or less. Project costs for Davis have now been scaled back to less than $120 million. But it is not clear what has changed, and there have been no bids. This means that cited costs are estimates.
And only two firms are still available for the specified “design, build, operate” bidding process. These are huge firms that are familiar with each other’s operations, so real competition and participation of local contractors seem questionable at best.
At some point, it was decided that the surface water system should be large enough to replace groundwater, at least seasonally, rather than blending in smaller amounts of surface water to improve current water quality while reducing the size and cost of the surface water project. There are more affordable alternatives.
Whatever the final cost, the project would be financed by selling bonds secured by water rates. Once borrowed, the entire balance would be repaid plus interest over at least 30 years. Anyone with a mortgage knows that most of these payments go toward interest.
In this case, the total cost would be about three times the amount borrowed, which means that nearly two out of every three additional water rate dollars would be for paying interest.
Recently, the Davis City Council decided to push some bond payments into the future. This would reduce initial rate increases, including those shown in published notices, but would cost more overall and lead to higher future rates. The city also has switched from bi-monthly to monthly billing, which gives the appearance of lower payments. With so many changes accompanied by self-serving explanations, it is hard to trust either the numbers or the thinking behind them.
Finally, it is not possible to determine exactly how much your water costs would go up under the latest city proposal. For three years, water bills would be based on increasing, but fixed, rates for given volumes of water. Then, the amount of water delivered during the previous summer would be used to adjust individual water rates. So, additional water needed during a long, hot summer would lock in higher rates for the 12 months of the next year.
Without knowing future demand, therefore, it is not possible to calculate one’s future water costs. But we can be certain that even if users conserve, water cost will not decrease overall because the total amount collected must still cover the bond payments.
Higher water bills also would hurt our community. People on tight budgets would have to spend less on other needs or move elsewhere. Landscape watering reductions would make Davis less green, and some trees would be lost. Voters struggling to pay for city services would be less likely to support school and city taxes. The school district’s additional water cost would be similar to paying for three or four teachers. And, although it isn’t clear how the city is paying for water, any increase would come from ratepayers and taxpayers one way or another.
The No on I campaign is right. In its current form, the Woodland-Davis surface water project is not needed, not fair and not affordable.
— John Munn is a retired soil and water scientist, past president of the Yolo County Taxpayers Association, and a former member of the Davis Board of Education.