The issue: Surface water plan in Measure I is filled with flaws, but it’s our best option now
No issue that has come before The Davis Enterprise editorial board in the past 30-plus years has been debated as much as Measure I, the proposed Woodland-Davis surface water project. But then, no issue has as much long-term importance to our community as this one does — the ability of our city to deliver clean water to our taps for many years to come.
We expect these sorts of deliberations to be taking place in every home in Davis, because Measure I comes with an enormous price tag. The question before voters is a simple one — should we move forward with this water project? — but behind it are many complex questions: Is this the correct path for our water needs, now and into the future? Has the decision-making process been fair? Is the rate structure equitable to all residents? Are there better options?
THESE QUESTIONS and many more have been the subject of hundreds of hours of discussions by the Davis Water Advisory Committee, 15 local residents appointed by the City Council to delve deeply into these complicated matters. We trust in the WAC process, and we thank those who served for their commitment to our community’s best interests. We also are grateful for the opportunity to vote on this matter of profound, long-range significance to Davis. The failed effort in 2011 to move the surface water project forward flew in the face of Davis’ proud history of democracy.
There is no doubt that Davis needs a source of surface water to supplement its deteriorating groundwater wells. In fact, Davis and Woodland are the only two cities with populations greater than 20,000 in the Sacramento Valley region that are still 100 percent dependent on groundwater. Efforts have been under way in Davis for the past 20 years to secure rights to Sacramento River water. Now that we have those rights, the question becomes: Where do we tap into the river? And where do we have that water treated?
Opponents of Measure I fear the cost of the Woodland-Davis project and urge Davis to reconsider a plan to purchase treated water from West Sacramento. They argue that Woodland will not be able to build its plant alone and will come running back to us for help, and that a deal with West Sac will work itself out somehow. Both of these are dangerous conjectures with no proof. Based on these and many other reasons, the WAC and the council discarded the West Sac option as not viable, even though it’s less expensive. We agree.
That leaves us with the joint Woodland-Davis project, of which Davis’ share is estimated to be $113 million. Although the size of the plant was scaled back thanks to the WAC’s work, Davis’ share of the costs shrank by a less-than-equitable amount. Davis will pay 50 percent of the cost to operate the plant when it will use substantially less water than Woodland. We think tougher negotiations could have cut our community a better deal.
SO THAT BRINGS us to rates, which are projected to nearly triple over the next several years. A complicated rate structure and stretched-out debt financing will help reduce the sticker shock somewhat, but we remain concerned that higher bills will be an onerous burden for many in these challenging times. Household dollars spent on water are dollars that will not be available to help support the local economy.
And, thanks to the recent revelation that the city of Davis hasn’t been paying for its own water use, our already-stressed general fund will be further tapped to cover these new expenses. Brace yourself for more budget cuts.
Woodland ratepayers are in a better position than we are, because that community has gradually been ramping up water rates over the past five years. Past Davis City Councils had that option as well but lacked the courage to start saving, and now we’re in a big hole. The city has provided plenty of information about how homeowners can calculate their future rates, which are based on an arcane peak summer-use formula that most of us don’t really understand, as well as on our monthly water use.
The good news? We’re told that these rates are the most fair for the most number of people. The bad news? They’re going to be high, no matter what. And the worst news? Even if you conserve, your water bill undoubtedly will rise, because the city must raise the money necessary to pay for the plant’s construction.
WE HAVE ONE SHOT to partner with Woodland on this project before that community goes forward on its own. We are asked to choose an option filled with flaws, wishing it could be so much more. If we say no, where do we turn for our future water needs?
So, after much deliberation, we recommend a yes vote on Measure I, though we ask each voter to understand that they are paying an enormous price for securing clean surface water.