Sunday, March 29, 2015

There are better alternatives for water

From page A15 | February 17, 2013 |

By Sue Greenwald

I strongly believe that approving the Woodland-Davis water project is the most risky and potentially harmful decision that has been made by a City Council during the 12 years that I served as a council member.

We do not need this particular project at this time. We can’t afford this uniquely expensive approach to our long-term water infrastructure upgrades, and the consequences of proceeding with it are likely to be devastating.

There is no urgency

We don’t need the project to meet discharge requirements or drinking water quality standards. Our water is clean and healthy, it meets all state and federal drinking water and discharge requirements, and it will be much softer and better-tasting once our two new deep wells are online. Our deep wells, with their high water quality, are in great condition and do replenish. The consultant the city hired to assess the deep wells reported that he finds no sustainability problems at “current usage levels.”

We will not lose our Sacramento River water rights. They are secure for at least the next 40 years. We need to focus on paying off our expensive new wastewater treatment plant. We have time to pursue rational regional options.

Two small rural towns cannot afford to build an entirely separate water system. Staff did not level with the council about regional options back in 2002 — we were told they didn’t exist when, in fact, they did. Recently, West Sacramento made us a far less expensive offer for the same quantity of permanent surface water that we would be getting from the Woodland project, but the Davis City Council then denigrated the quality of West Sacramento water and demanded ozone treatment.

West Sacramento uses the same water treatment system used by the vast majority of Americans and by every other city in the northern Central Valley. Publicly impugning the quality of their water was, understandably, death to the current round of negotiations for a sensible regional solution.

If you want to use scare tactics about West Sacramento’s perfectly safe water, let’s talk about the risk that the state Department of Public Health is actually concerned about, i.e., the fact that the Woodland wastewater treatment plant with its airborne pathogens is too close to the planned Woodland drinking water treatment plant. We can mitigate the risk of this foolish planning error, but we cannot eliminate it.

We need to change course and negotiate in good faith for a long-term regional infrastructure plan. Again, there is no urgency and we have the time.

Costs higher than stated

Costs to the homeowner of the Woodland/Davis project will be far, far higher than council and staff have acknowledged. We will have among the very highest sewer/water/garbage costs in the state when rates are ramped up to reflect full project costs in seven or eight years. Current projections, which vastly underestimate costs to the homeowner, also only cover the first five years of the needed increases. Costs will end up much higher. Two of the three companies in the bidding process dropped out after hearing the new “lower” project cost projections. (One has since rejoined the process.) That should tell us something about the promised costs of the project.

To make matters worse, the council has shifted costs dramatically to existing homeowners by basing the rates on summer usage. In other words, people who must irrigate their lawns will pay much more per gallon year-round, and large apartment owners and businesses will pay less per gallon year-round.

This shift of costs to the homeowner has not been fully accounted for in the homeowner rate projections. The council has promised that our water/sewer rates will be “about average” for the state after this project is completed. Again, that is not true; our rates will be among the highest in the state.

I can’t address the stunning amount of misinformation that has been disseminated by the city within the space constraints of this short piece, so I would like to focus briefly on a few of the aspects of the inevitable cascade of deleterious consequences that likely will follow if the Woodland/Davis project proceeds.

Down the road

The city of Davis cannot afford to pay its municipal irrigation bills if this project goes through. Legally, the city must pay for its water out of our deficit-ridden general fund. So the city is planning to opt out of the system and rely on its own shallower wells for municipal irrigation.

When the city opts out, the overwhelming burden of the costs of paying for the project and the existing city water structure will shift even more heavily to existing homeowners due to the summer-based water usage rate structure that penalizes the use of water for landscape irrigation.

In response to the punishing rates for those who must irrigate, El Macero is also talking about opting out and using its own wells for irrigation. The university has opted out, as has its West Village housing project. Just as the city has the legal right to opt out and use private wells for irrigation, so do private landowners. This will further shrink our customer base and throw more of the cost back on existing homeowners.

And it will get worse. New subdivision developers are likely to separately pipe for irrigation and use their own shallow wells and gray water systems. This is feasible for large new subdivisions, but not for existing homeowners. The Hunt/Wesson site’s Cannery Park planned subdivision has a working well. Doubtless they, too, will opt out.

Additionally, I expect that aspiring large subdivision developers in the county, such as Angelo Tsakopoulos, who owns a huge tract of land between Davis and the Yolo Bypass, will not only use their own shallow/intermediate well irrigation systems, but could even push to join West Sacramento’s system instead of ours, since it is so much less expensive.

Ironically, this replumbing of irrigation from private shallower wells will increase subsidence risk, since the subsidence threat from shallow wells is greater than subsidence risk of deep aquifer wells.

As a result of our extraordinarily high water costs, our customer base that must pay for the new project will contract rather than grow, and new development on the periphery and in the county will be lush and green with affordable water for irrigation while existing Davis will become exorbitantly expensive, brown and dry.

The train we want to miss

We have heard that we must proceed because “the train is leaving the station” and we will have to pay more in the future if we don’t jump on the train now. This is silly. If we miss this train, we will thank our lucky stars because this train destined to crash.

If we pull the plug on this ill-conceived project, chances are that Woodland will join us in working with West Sacramento to build a sensible regional project with economies of scale and with rational utilization of existing facilities that have excess capacity.

And if Woodland is foolish enough to “go it alone,” then the city of Davis will be in an extraordinarily strong negotiating position down the road. We will be flanked by two cities with excess capacity competing to incorporate us in order to bring down their own costs.

— Sue Greenwald served on the Davis City Council from 2000 to 2012 and as mayor in 2006-08.



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