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WAC members worked hard for ratepayers

Davis Water Advisory Committee member Petrea Marchand, foreground left, asks a question of Herb Niederberger, right, the city’s general manager of utilities, development and operations, at the Nov. 8 WAC meeting. The key focus of discussion was how to fairly set a rate structure that would raise enough money to pay for a new surface water project. Wayne Tilcock/Enterprise photo

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From page A1 | January 31, 2013 | Leave Comment

* Editor’s note: This is the third in a series of stories examining the proposed Woodland-Davis joint surface water project, including project specifics, the city of Davis’ water utility in general and arguments for and against Measure I in the March 5 mail-only election.

Water Advisory Committee

Appointed by Stephen Souza: Michael Bartolic, Elaine Roberts Musser (chair), Jane Rundquist (alternate)

Appointed by Sue Greenwald: Mark Siegler, Bill Kopper, Walter Sadler (alternate)

Appointed by Joe Krovoza: Frank Loge, Steve Boschken, David Purkey (alternate)

Appointed by Rochelle Swanson: Jerry Adler, Jim West, Matt Williams (alternate)

Appointed by Dan Wolk: Alf Brandt, Helen Thomson, Petrea Marchand (alternate)

After a citizen-driven referendum forced the City Council to repeal a water rate hike that it approved in late 2011 to begin paying off the proposed Woodland-Davis surface water project, the council took a step back and bought a year to assemble a Water Advisory Committee. The group was asked to examine the project — and the city’s water utility in general — and make recommendations to the council on how to proceed.

The WAC got to work in late December 2011 at the Senior Center, but the group was soon thrust into prime time when the committee, conscious of the importance of its decision-making, voted to televise its meetings from the Community Chambers at City Hall, at a round table in front of the City Council dais.

For the first few meetings, the WAC reviewed studies and statistics about the state of the city’s ground well system, received reports from city staff and hired engineers about water quality, and learned about the history and background of the Woodland-Davis surface water project.

The committee heard testimony from industry and UC Davis water experts, opinions of local business interests and took regular public comment.

Members asked for new information, looked over old data and finally, after six months of work, the Water Advisory Committee made its first substantial decision.

Based on the information they had, committee members agreed that continuing on with ground water only was not a viable option for the city of Davis and that the city needed a second source of water to ensure safe, reliable drinking water in the future.

At the time, the group heard testimony from Graham Fogg, a UCD professor of hydrogeology, who laid out the state of the city’s wells for them.

“Salinity (levels) in groundwater will continue to elevate,” Fogg explained. “If the city continues to pump, the direction of flow will reverse and that process will induce contamination from shallow (aquifers) to deep (and) higher-salinity, shallower water will seep down into the deep aquifer and turn the aquifers bad.”

Fogg also warned that Davis could overdraft the deep aquifer at some point in the future, though he was unsure of how long it would take to reach that point.

But the message was clear, the city of Davis would need a new source of water.

But by when?

And how?

Timing, size eyed

In May, with conjunctive use in mind, WAC member Siegler, who has since joined the No on Measure I campaign, made a motion to have the committee address those issues directly: to determine the appropriate timing of the project, the necessary size, the most advantageous cost and financing of the project and the source of the surface water supply.

The motion passed unanimously, 10-0.

According to Siegler, however, these questions were never truly answered by the committee.

“When I voted for this, I thought the project timeline would be front and center, since it was the first item listed,” Siegler said in an email. “Instead, it was ignored.

“My opposition to the project stems largely from the WAC’s failure to do what we committed to do in this motion.”

But according to Musser, WAC chair and Yes on Measure I committee member, perhaps the WAC didn’t directly address the questions Siegler posed then, but the group would do so later.

That came late last summer, when the City Council began putting pressure on the water committee to determine a specific project, as it was receiving updates from the water agency that the city was nearing the allotted time it had sought to keep the project on schedule.

The WAC had no choice but to refocus its attention onto the various surface water project options.

First, the committee analyzed the original Woodland-Davis project and, comparing that to the actual volume of water Davis needed, realized the size of the intake facility could be 25 percent smaller than the engineers and the water agency originally estimated.

With that discovery, the committee effectively reduced the size of the project from a plant processing 40 million gallons of water per day to 30 mgd, where Davis would receive 12 mgd per day and Woodland 18.

Perhaps more importantly, however, at least to Davis residents, the cost of the project then dropped by at least $30 million.

But there was talk of an alternative project floating around, another surface water option, that could bring Sacramento River to Davis at an even cheaper price.

In December 2011, the city of West Sacramento had approached Davis city staff with a renewed interest in supplying Davis with potable drinking water. Naturally, upon hearing of the offer, the WAC showed great interest in comparing the West Sacramento plan with the joint project with Woodland.

The project with West Sacramento likely would have had Davis buy into that city’s existing water intake facility on the Sacramento River as a wholesale customer and then build a pipeline, perhaps across the Yolo Bypass, to transport the water from the intake and treatment facility to Davis.

In the summer of 2012, the WAC looked at the West Sac option’s feasibility, water quality and, above all else, cost. And because the city would not have to build an entirely new river water intake facility, it appeared that it was a viable alternative, at least one that warranted serious consideration.

Decisions needed

Meanwhile, the council reiterated to the WAC that it needed a decision on a surface water project by the end of August to keep the project on its current timeline and estimated cost.

The group quickly lopped off the three most expensive surface water options that city staff had presented. Two were Woodland-Davis projects on delayed schedules that resulted in dramatic upticks in the price tag.

Dennis Diemer, general manager of the water agency, had worked out numbers at the end of 2011 that said if the city didn’t join Woodland in the project for five years, it could inflate the price tag by $20 million.

The other option the group eliminated was a West Sacramento alternative option that called for Davis to help build out a larger intake facility that the committee deemed unnecessary.

The decision then came down to two possibilities: the reduced Woodland-Davis Clean Water Agency project on the current time schedule, estimated at about $126 million, or the West Sacramento alternative at an estimated $90 million.

The WAC decided that because the city would own and operate the project with the city in Woodland, rather than becoming a customer to West Sacramento, and because it would be able to draw a higher quality of water from the Woodland-Davis intake, among other factors, it would recommend the Woodland-Davis Clean Water Agency project to the council.

Herb Niederberger, the city’s general manager of utilities, development and operations, also said at the time that the city also had concerns about losing control over rate increases.

According to Musser, this is where the committee addressed Siegler’s questions.

“(The) when and which project should be implemented was discussed at great length at WAC meetings when determining which was the preferred project,” Musser said in an email to The Enterprise last week. “One of the advantages to the West Sac option was the ability to delay a surface water project, to give more time to ratchet up the necessary rate increases.

“However, that advantage was far outweighed by the disadvantages of the West Sac option: It cost almost as much, we would have been only a customer of West Sac rather than a partner, West Sac heavily chlorinates its water because it does not have ozonation, there would be additional EIR hurdles to overcome which could take five to seven years, among other considerations.”

It appeared, then, the committee was ready to move forward with the Woodland-Davis project.

But even with the committee’s decision to recommend that project, several water committee members still hadn’t given up on West Sacramento.

Cost-sharing

In the same motion that the committee would advise the council to go with Woodland, the committee also asked the council to negotiate with West Sac leaders one last time for the best possible deal, while also renegotiating the cost-sharing of the Woodland-Davis project.

The reasoning behind the second suggestion was that the water committee had determined that the city of Davis was on the hook for a disproportionate amount of the joint project’s cost, especially after it had reduced the size of the intake facility.

Under the original joint powers authority agreement, the majority of the costs were split 54-46 as Woodland was going to pump a maximum of 22 mgd and Davis 18, or 54 and 46 percent of the overall total capacity.

But with a reduced capacity to 30 mgd and Davis’ share of that project down two 12 mgd or 40 percent, the committee only found it fair that Davis should pay less for the project.

So, the group sent two pairs of Davis council members to negotiate with the two cities, Krovoza and newly elected Councilman Brett Lee to West Sacramento and Wolk and Swanson to Woodland.

When they returned with the final terms for surface water deals, the committee hoped, they then would be able to definitively pick one of the projects based on the best possible offer.

It may have been a crafty move. But unfortunately for the WAC, negotiations with both cities went poorly.

West Sacramento Mayor Christopher Cabaldon, who had been following the WAC’s deliberations, didn’t seem to take seriously the deal points the committee had offered. He told The Enterprise at the time that it felt like Davis was trying to leverage a better deal with Woodland by showing an interest in West Sacramento.

Eventually, West Sacramento City Manager Martin Tuttle sent a letter to his Davis counterpart, Steve Pinkerton, outlining a less-than-favorable deal.

In response, Cabaldon and Krovoza met and decided it was in both cities’ best interests to walk away from the possibility of supplying water to Davis through West Sacramento.

All the same time, Wolk and Swanson had been meeting with Woodland city leaders to negotiate the new cost-sharing terms, but the Woodland council members decided they would not talk about changes to the JPA agreement until Davis was sure it wanted to pursue the Woodland-Davis project.

The lack of cooperation, essentially from both fronts, eventually forced the water committee to make a final decision on the project based on the same information it had when it first asked for the dual negotiations.

And so in early fall, with no substantial changes to the original estimations of both projects, the WAC voted 8-2 to recommend the reduced Woodland-Davis Clean Water Agency project to the City Council.

Voting in favor of the recommendation were committee members Frank Loge, Petrea Marchand, Elaine Roberts Musser, Jerry Adler, Alf Brandt, Jim West, Steve Boschken and Bill Kopper. Dissenting were Michael Bartolic and Mark Siegler.

But while the City Council now had its endorsement from the water committee, it did not yet have one from the general public.

That would have to come through a public vote and acceptance of the water rate hike needed to pay for the project.

What’s next: How does Davis propose to pay for this major new utility?

— Reach Tom Sakash at tsakash@davisenterprise.net or 530-747-8057. Follow him on Twitter @TomSakash

Tom Sakash

Tom Sakash covers the city beat for The Davis Enterprise. Reach him at tsakash@davisenterprise.net, (530) 747-8057 or @TomSakash.
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