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

Thursday, March 08, 2007

City Moves Forward Water Plans

The city is moving forward with an upgrade to its wastewater treatment. This massive project is currently estimated to cost $140 million. The average customer will see their sewer rates increase gradually over the next ten years by an amount of around 7 percent or just over double the rate projected rate of inflation.

The current proposal is for a flat rate in which all customers would pay the same sewer rates regardless of usage. However, the staff suggested that the costs are the same for both, the allocation of the spending may change if they go to a volume based system.

All involved acknowledged that given restriction on waste water outflow, that there is no scenario without waste water improvement--that is not feasible, we cannot simply do nothing.

Elaine Roberts Musser, Chair of the Davis Senior Citizens Commission raised a couple of concerns. She pointed out that a consumption based method would be best for seniors, since seniors have small households and thus will most likely consume less water on average than the average resident. However, these increases will still hit seniors and very income people very hard and some will lose their homes. Also concerned that multi-dwelling households will have the costs passed on to tenants and that seniors will end up hurt because of their fixed income.

Mayor Sue Greenwald's approach was that clearly this project was needed however, she wants to look into the feasibility of paying off the wastewater improvement system first before taking on the surface water project. She suggested that some outside experts agree with this approach and that not everyone has the sense of urgency for surface water that some have expressed. She suggested handling the sewer project first and trying to defray the costs on the other as long as possible.

The city has certainly not looked seriously into this possibility of delaying the surface water importation project, but I think they are going to need to. Ms. Musser's comments are very pertinent because they reflect concerns just about the impact of higher sewer rates on people of either low or fixed income. If you hit them with higher water rates in addition to higher sewer rates, you are hitting them with a double whammy from which they might not recover.

The arguments for doing it now are that construction costs have skyrocketed recently and some have suggested that they will continue to raise making it necessary to build sooner rather than later. There is also the first come, most served argument that those who do not stake their claim to water now will get less or none in the future.

As with the sewer argument, Mayor Greenwald disagreed and argued that talking to other experts that the water rights issue has been overstated. Cities that obtained water in the sixties have the same rights and access as people who have obtained water rights now.

The sewer rate increase passed unanimously but the water supply project was approved by a 3-2 vote.

The interesting subtext is that this is merely moving along the process of securing the rights to extract the water rather than dealing with the costs and engineering of moving that water to Davis.

The council majority argued that this part needs to move forward and that this approval is not tantamount to an overall approval that will happen at a later date.

However, Mayor Greenwald strongly disagreed and I agree with her. If you look at this history of this project it is a history full of small decisions like this that eventually and inevitably lead to the belief in fait accompli. This is just the same as the council claim that approving a Request for Proposal (RFP) is not the same as approving the project. But in fact, it may as well be for practical intents and purposes. There is considerable bureaucratic creep in these projects that means that as they move along, each small step makes it increasingly likely that the final project will end up being approved and that the council will never actually face the big issue of whether or not to approve the project.

It seems to me that serious questions remain about both sewer and water supply that simply have not been addressed. One of those issues is cost for people who cannot afford rate hikes. Remember a lot of fixed income people do not even have cost of living adjustments built in, so an increase at inflation would be troublesome, an increase at 2.3 times inflation could be deadly. An increase of that magnitude for both sewer and water supply could be catastrophic.

In the end, the answer may be that we do need to get a new water supply source and that it must be done now, but significantly more study would seem appropriate. While they have not approved of the final project as of yet, they could mandate further study even as they move forward to obtain the rights to extract the water.

---Doug Paul Davis reporting