The Vanguard has a new home, please update your bookmarks to

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Commentary: Davis City Council Water Workshop

Last night the Davis City Council spent probably six hours listening to and discussing water--water supply and water treatment.

The new water plan is in its early stages, there was a permit requested in 1994 and the new water project would not be completed until around 2015.

One interesting thing about the meeting last night is when I walked into council chambers and there were about 20 or so 50-year old, white men, in nice suits. And I suddenly realized how big and powerful this industry really is. Then I spent several hours listening to engineers and consultants and lawyers talk about the complex issue of water and water rights and delivery.

Part of the problem as a layman with no expertise at all in this field, is deciding whether to accept what they said at face-value or to figure out ways to question them.

The bottom line presented last night is this--there are concerns about the future viability of the city water supply and also the quality of both the supply and the wastewater. There are time sensitive issues that require diligent attention to the time line in the application process in order to keep the city of Davis' place in line and the feeling of the presenters was that we had better stake our claims now or we will get shortchanged in the future.

The proposal right now is to get permission to do some sort of bypass to siphon off water from the Sacramento River and divert it to a pumping station that would be a shared facility with the City of Woodland and UC Davis.

The cost projections for this are prohibitive in the hundreds of millions of dollars. Basically water users would on average see the price they pay double from this year ($37 per month) to 2015 ($70 per month). That's not quite as bad as it seems, the average projected inflation would be about 3.5% and this is about 7% increase annually. That is no doubt inflation, but it means that there would be about a $17 increase based on inflation alone even without this improvement.

The most interesting exchange of the evening was during Mayor Sue Greenwald's period to question the staff on these issues. The Mayor was trying to get some answers to her questions without the editorializing by staff who clearly strongly favored the given proposal. This became frustrating for the Mayor who was for instance trying to ascertain the quality of the water from deep wells without getting the staff's viewpoint that using such wells was not viable in their opinion.

Her pressing on this matter caused both Mayor Pro Tem Ruth Asmundson and City Councilmember Don Saylor to complain. The Mayor probably could have explained a bit better why she was pushing in this matter, but by the end it became clear that her point was trying to look at alternatives rather than simply accepting this report at face value. Her colleagues need to allow her that privilege even if it means that she has to push staff who were clearly trying to keep the conversation steered in their own direction and towards their own recommendations.

The Mayor sent me this statement:
"Staff expressed great concern with the risk of construction costs outstripping the cost of inflation (that is a more accurate way to phrase the perennial "prices will keep rising" fear). But there are also risks with doing a huge capital project sooner rather than later, especially when regulation changes and climate changes make the future so unpredictable. The longer we wait, the more information we have and the more technology improves. And, in fact, we did suffer from building our current wastewater treatment facility prematurely. Had we waited, we would have known more about current regulations, and we would have built a facility that would have required a relatively inexpensive upgrade, rather than the 150 million dollar project we face today.

I favor doing an equal weight feasibility study that seriously looks at the possibility of postponing the surface water project until much of the wastewater facility is paid off. It will take about thirty years to pay off each project. If we can provide safe water from the deep aquifer for another 15 or 20 years, we can phase these projects so that we won't be forced to put the entire burden of both of these massive projects on today's rate payers, and particularly on today's seniors on fixed incomes."
The general tone expressed by the water experts is that water is going to be an increasingly scare commodity in the future and that we have to grab our share first. However, that seems somewhat problematic in terms of how future events are likely to play out.

No one asked the question I had which was how likely it would be that this would be a viable source of water in the future. It seems to me that given population growth and climate change, that we might be paying a bunch of money upfront for a commodity that will be unavailable in 10 to 20 years. Their argument is that we need to grab our rights while we can, but in lean times, it may not play out in that manner as the state needs to find an equity of distribution based on needs rather than demands or order of preference.

Thus it might be that we are spending a lot of money in preparation for something that will never yield water given increased demands on the source before we even get a stake in it (remember there is 10 years to go between now and then, and there are people in front of us in line).

Moreover, there is great uncertainty about climate changes and how that will impact precipitation including snowfall but also rainfall. The variance in form may determine how water gets to us--ground water versus runoff. The variance in amount may determine whether there is even water to obtain in the first place.

Second, no one asked about the environmental impacts on the Delta that siphoning off even more water from the Sacramento River will produce. I know that the Delta is not in our city, but does that mean that we should not consider the impact of increased demand on the Sacramento River. And it is not just our city that is in line to obtain this water source, but the entire region is lining up for it. Yet no one asked that question.

Overall, I have to say after watching this presentation, I'm more alarmed about this issue than I was previously. Hopefully I will learn more and there will be further opportunities to ask questions on this vital item.

---Doug Paul Davis reporting