By Alf W. Brandt
After decades of work on improving Davis drinking water quality, the Woodland-Davis water supply project — and Measure I — deserve your support. I join my colleagues in the water community — many living in Davis — in urging you to join with us to create a clean and sustainable water supply for our community and the generations who succeed us. For more than a decade, I and others in the water community have advocated improving Davis water quality by going to the Sacramento River.
My family and I moved to Davis in 1997 so I could take a job as a Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta water lawyer for the U.S. Department of the Interior. At that time, I knew nothing about Davis water quality. That changed quickly. First, our real estate agent touted that our house was already plumbed for a water softener, to fix the hardness in Davis water. Then, a few weeks later, local water officials chided me for moving to Davis, which had some of the worst quality water in the region. Some of these officials proudly diverted their water from the Sacramento River or the American River.
Several months later, I joined the Davis Natural Resources Commission, to see if I might help Davis address its water issues. During my NRC service, I learned that Davis had been working on improving its water quality for more than a decade. In reviewing the annual water quality report, we learned that the city’s intermediate aquifer wells had begun to encounter contaminants, such as nitrates, that exceeded drinking water standards. Some wells had to be shut down.
In 1992, the city had begun migrating deeper in the aquifer to address water quality problems. The deep aquifer enjoyed generally better water (at least less hardness), but it was not well understood. It appeared that water migrated underground from the agricultural areas to the northwest. The deep aquifer might be better protected. The deep aquifer had very old water — 6,000 to 8,000 years old — so it appeared to be contained, but the hydrology experts could not be sure. In any case, the deeper wells cost substantially more.
In addition, Yolo County Flood Control & Water Conservation District filed an application in 1994 to the State Water Resources Control Board to appropriate water from the Sacramento River on behalf of Davis, UC Davis and other entities in Yolo County.
In 2001, I developed — and the NRC adopted — a 10-year “Vision for Davis Water,” addressing both water supply and wastewater. It included ambitious goals such as a no-discharge wastewater program, selling our treated wastewater to local farmers. But the centerpiece of that vision was to go to the Sacramento River for our water supply, which would address water quality for drinking and the wastewater stream.
As a delta lawyer, I recognized the importance of reducing salinity discharges into the Yolo Bypass, which had become recognized as a critical part of restoring the health of the delta ecosystem. The state water board had begun ratcheting down its standards for salinity discharges, and the city was finding it more difficult to comply. The City Council did not adopt the entire vision, but proceeded with its program to obtain a Sacramento River water right and pursue acquisition of summer water.
For the next decade, the city proceeded toward the river for water, and I helped when I could. Our project had a changing set of partners. Woodland dropped out at one point. West Sacramento emerged as an alternative and then dropped out. UC Davis continued working with the city, but it had sufficient supplies for the near future — the deep aquifer for drinking water and Lake Berryessa for some of its agricultural water. (The city had not pursued clean water from Lake Berryessa water when the opportunity arose in the 1950s.)
Ten years later, I joined the Water Advisory Committee, so I could review the proposed water project. While I had long advocated going to the river, I had questions about the nature of this particular project — its size, the “design-build-operate” contract and the choice of partners. Working on the WAC, I concluded that the Davis-Woodland water supply project, as reconfigured, is the best option for a clean and sustainable water supply.
Drawing on good water from the Sacramento River and using the most advanced ozone-treatment technology, our water quality will be among the best in the region. Just as important, our wastewater will no longer dump salt into the Yolo Bypass and the delta.
Yes, our water will cost more, but at rates in line with what other urban communities across California now pay for their clean water. As California has grown, our water resources have not. Everyone, including agriculture, pays more for water today than when I started learning about California water policy 30 years ago.
This most precious public resource remains limited and we have had to pay for the effects California’s economic growth has imposed on our aquatic ecosystems, especially in the delta. The cost of water will continue to only increase. Building this project now will save us — and our children — the higher costs that inevitably will arrive. That’s why I talk to my neighbors about why we all should vote for Measure I.
For more information on the Yes on Measure I campaign, visit daviswater.org.
— Alf W. Brandt serves the California Assembly as an expert on water law and policy, as well as executive director of the Dividing the Waters Program at the National Judicial College. He is a Davis resident.