After months, years and even decades of debate, there’s really only one more word to say about water in Davis.
Yes, or no.
However, locals who haven’t yet mailed back their Measure I ballot to officially voice approval or disapproval of the Woodland-Davis Clean Water Agency surface water project, are running out of time to utter anything.
The $245 million water project would draw water from the Sacramento River, pipe it to a treatment facility in eastern Woodland and then pump it to Davis and Woodland as their new sources of drinking water. Davis’ share is estimated at $113 million.
Measure I must receive a majority vote to be approved Tuesday, authorizing Davis to join the project with Woodland.
Voters who haven’t yet mailed their ballots, however, still have options.
Ballots may be dropped off in person at the Yolo County Elections Office, Room B05, 625 Court St. in Woodland by 8 p.m. Tuesday or at the Stephens Branch Library, 315 E. 14th St. in Davis by that same deadline.
Registered voters also can vote at the polls from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. Tuesday at the Veterans’ Memorial Center, 203 E. 14th St. if they have lost or never received their mail-in ballots.
Ballots that arrive at the Elections Office after Tuesday evening will not be counted.
“I would not mail it on Monday,” said Kris Mann, assistant to the county clerk-recorder. “Because you can’t guarantee the mail, next day.”
According to Mann, the Elections Office had received 10,272 votes as of Friday morning.
Arguments pro, con
Over the course of the campaign, the Yes on Measure I committee has offered many arguments in favor of the city’s plan to bring a new source of water to town.
Among them, proponents have said the groundwater source has begun to deteriorate and will continue to do so over time. Additionally, that failing aquifer will make it more difficult and more expensive for the city to meet state wastewater discharge requirements.
Yes on Measure I advocates also point to the risk of paying more for a water project down the road if its deep wells fail, should the city not pursue this project with Woodland now.
The group also stands behind the work of the Water Advisory Committee, which the council appointed in late 2011 to look at the city’s water utility and the potential for a surface water project. The committee voted 10-0 last year in support of both groundwater and surface water, and 8-2 in producing that second source through the Woodland-Davis water project.
“Davis remains one of a few California cities still relying entirely on groundwater,” Yes on Measure I Committee campaign manager Will Arnold, said in a statement. “In the past, groundwater was sufficient to meet community needs and regulatory requirements. But the quality of local groundwater is worsening, as evidenced by the deep well shutdown this week because of manganese contamination.
“The reality is our groundwater has increasing levels of contaminants threatening our environment and public health. We cannot afford to wait. Delay or inaction are not options.”
The No on Measure I committee has had answers, however, for almost every argument the yes side has put forward.
Project opponents say the underground aquifer can supply the city for years, or at least until the city can more easily afford a water project, if it becomes necessary at all. And with water bills likely to triple or quadruple over the next five years while the city pays off the debt on the project, No on I members say residents may not be able to afford the dramatic increases.
As for discharge requirements, the No group has vehemently argued that the city can meet them with minimal upgrades to the well system.
Some also worry that a yes vote would give the City Council a blank check for the costs of the project, even if they rise above the $113 million that engineers have projected the plant eventually will cost.
“This project more than triples your water rates, privatizes our precious public resource and hands a blank check and control over to multinational construction and operation companies,” said No on I spokesman Michael Harrington. “Multiple technical experts have testified that our well system will comply with all safety and health standards for many years to come.
“The weird, unfair rate structure charges Davis ratepayers 30 percent more per gallon than what Woodland will pay. Vote no, and make the city come back with an acceptable project, fixed project costs and affordable, understandable rates.”
The Yes on Measure I campaign has held a large financial edge throughout the Measure I race. As of Thursday, supporters had raised $71,137 raised compared to $23,990 for opponents.
Harrington, who spearheaded the referendum campaign that forced the City Council to rescind its first attempt to raise rates for the water project, also filed a lawsuit against the city in late January after discovering it had not been entirely accounting and paying for the water it used. The suit was filed in collaboration with Davis residents Nancy and Don Price and John Munn, former president of the Yolo County Taxpayers Association.
The complaint also alleges that the water rate models the City Council plans to adopt on March 19 to bill ratepayers for water are illegal.
With its war chest, the Yes on Measure I committee paid for two polls to gauge the pace of the water race. In late January, after conducting a poll in December, the Yes group announced that 63 percent of a group “most likely to vote” in the mail-in election favored the city’s plan for the water project, with 11 percent opposing it.
If the project is, in fact, approved Tuesday, the council still must adopt the rates necessary to pay off its share of the joint project. It will conduct a public hearing on the proposed rate increases on March 19. If more than half of the city’s approximately 16,000 property owners protest the rate hike, the increases would be stayed.
The last time the council attempted to increase rates, more than 4,000 property owners protested.
But for that attempt to increase rates, the city mailed postcards to residents to streamline the protest process. No cards were mailed to residents this time around. Instead, the No on Measure I committee printed coupons in the Feb. 24 edition of The Enterprise that residents can fill out and send in to the city to formally protest the rates.
If the project is approved and the rates are adopted, the Woodland-Davis Clean Water Agency will begin the bidding process with the two remaining firms that will vie for the work, CH2M Hill and CDM/United Water. The CDM team recently dropped out of the race, and then was talked back in by agency leaders. The firm was concerned about the risk it would be asked to take on to put together the bids for the project work, which can cost millions to assemble.
CDM also worried that the project would exceed the design-build-operate cost benchmark “given the degree of public concern over rates.”
Finally, the firm felt that the standards to which it would be held while operating the project were too stringent, as laid out in the Joint Powers Authority agreement, putting them at a much higher risk of losing the operating portion of the contract. The teams competing for the project expect to receive about $6.37 million per year to operate the plant.
A third team originally picked to compete for the project work, Veolia Water North America, dropped out in December because it had reassigned key personnel and resources it would have needed to participate.
Once the contract for the work is awarded by the water agency, construction is expected to begin by the end of this year.
— Reach Tom Sakash at [email protected] or 530-747-8057. Follow him on Twitter at @TomSakash