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Water rates referendum launched public scrutiny

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From page A1 | January 29, 2013 | Leave Comment

Editor’s note: This is the second 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.

Decades of interest in adding a secondary source of drinking water, pinned to the warnings by engineers of a deteriorating ground well water supply, led the city of Davis to apply for Sacramento River water rights, via Yolo County, in the early 1990s.

Later, the state’s Regional Water Quality Control Board would hand down more stringent discharge standards to California cities, standards that would not be met fully with upgrades to Davis’ wastewater treatment plant, further propelling interest in a cleaner source of water that not only would improve quality but also help Davis meet those discharge standards.

So, with knowledge of a deteriorating ground well water supply, and with a close neighbor in Woodland struggling in a similar manner, the cities of Davis and Woodland joined together in 2009 to build a project that would help both municipalities meet those discharge standards, while improving and ensuring their supplies of quality drinking water.

Each city’s leaders attempted to gain citizen approval for the rates necessary to pay for the $325 million project. Woodland was successful.

Davis was not.

Referendum campaign

In late 2011, the City Council sent Proposition 218 notices to inform property owners of an upcoming rate hike to pay for the surface water project, as is its obligation under state law.

The council then held a public hearing and approved the water utility rate hike, which famously lasted until 3 in the morning one City Council meeting in September, despite the 4,500 written protests submitted to the city against the higher rates.

That action allowed the city to charge ratepayers a higher fee for water — a fee that likely would triple what Davisites were paying at the time — to fund the surface water project.

But Michael Harrington, a former Davis City Council member and a member of the No on Measure I campaign, formed a referendum committee, recruited a signature-gatherer from Sacramento and hit the streets of Davis to challenge the rate increases.

Harrington and his supporters opposed the higher rates and the surface water project for several reasons: They claimed the project was too large, that it was too expensive, that it was unnecessary and that it was too soon for the city of Davis to undertake.

Councilman Brett Lee, who lent a hand to the referendum cause in the midst of his campaign for a seat on the City Council, wanted to make sure the public truly had a say on the matter through a vote, regardless of the merits of the project and the corresponding rates.

Under state law, the group circulating the referendum had exactly 30 days to collect 3,705 signatures from registered voters in Davis to overturn the water rate hike.

And in early November, with 3,866 signatures, only 161 more than the cut-off point, the group reached its goal and the referendum qualified.

Questions surfaced about the validity of the referendum, as City Attorney Harriet Steiner wrote a memo to the council that attempted to poke holes in the petition, but in the end, the City Council — at the time made up of Mayor Joe Krovoza, Mayor Pro Tem Rochelle Swanson and Council members Sue Greenwald, Stephen Souza and Dan Wolk — had no choice but to rescind the motion from Sept. 6 and repeal the rates.

In effect, the surface water project was put on hold.

That’s when Wolk, now mayor pro tem, made the motion to form a citizen advisory group that would coach the council on all of its water decisions moving forward, most importantly on any decision invovling a surface water project.

The council assembled the group, in part, to gain the confidence of the residents who would be on the hook to pay for any project the council approved.

If the Water Advisory Committee approved the Woodland-Davis project, the council would be able to use the group’s endorsement as a bargaining chip when pushing for a recommitment to the project.

But there was a problem: How could the Woodland-Davis project, scheduled to be completed by 2016, stay on schedule if the city took a year off to have its advisory committee look into the matter?

There was a lot riding on that project schedule, and not just for Davis.

According to Woodland’s principal civil engineer, Douglas Baxter, the city of Woodland needed to keep the project on time because it had been hit with a tight timeline to meet state deadlines for regulatory discharge and water quality standards.

Any delay in the project, Woodland city leaders believe, could result in the state levying substantial fines against the city, a fate Davis could suffer if it also failed to meet its own deadlines.

“Woodland now has a state-issued ‘time scheduled order’ for selenium, which allows us to meet interim limits to reduce a chance of future fines until Sept. 21, 2016, for selenium,” Baxter said in an email last week to The Enterprise. “As the vast majority of the selenium comes from the selenium in our groundwater, this … requires us to have an improved water supply on line by Sept. 21, 2016.

“We are making good-faith efforts to meet our discharge requirements and to provide an improved water supply by 2016,” Baxter added. “The state has indicated that they will work with Woodland as long as Woodland works toward the completion of an improved water supply by the time frame we have previously told them, i.e., August 2016.

“They have also indicated that they have the ability to fine us sufficiently above the minimum fines as necessary to neutralize any apparent cost advantages we may perceive to have by not complying. By this, it means they will fine us more that what we would save by not doing the project and they would still require us to do the project.”

As of the latest estimates, the Woodland-Davis surface water project will cost the city of Woodland $145 million.

So, in an effort to maintain the original project schedule, Dennis Diemer, general manager of the Woodland-Davis Clean Water Agency, and his team successfully devised a plan that would shuffle around the project schedule, but keep the completion date intact.

The water agency’s new plan bought both the cities of Woodland and Davis a year where Woodland could still meet its requirements and Davis could still grant its advisory committee time to dive into the project specifics.

And so the spotlight shifted to the 15-member Water Advisory Committee.

What’s next: The WAC spends more than a year closely studying the project and making recommendations to the Davis City Council.

How did we get here? A brief history of Davis water, published Jan. 23, can be found here.

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