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Tuesday, June 26, 2007

City Puts Out Propaganda Piece on Water Supply Project

Like many resident of Davis, I recently received in the mail a publication from the City of Davis' Public Works Department: "Utility Connection." I had not even received the publication yet when I got calls and emails about it, incensed not only at the content, but in the fact that this was propaganda paid for by city expense using taxpayer money.

One need look no further than the front page to realize the gist of message:
"In this special issue of Utility Connection, we offer a more detailed look at two critical public works projects. These two projects--a water supply project and a wastewater treatment project--are important to ensure a high-quality water supply for Davis citizens and protect the water quality of our rivers, wetlands and creeks."
The implication throughout this publication is that our drinking water is unsafe. This is simply not true. The drinking water is completely safe using the current water supply. There are questions about the quality, but they are not issues of safety. Several people, familiar with this situation have suggested that the city is trying to scare people into believing that current water supplies are unsafe, but this is simply untrue.

The publication makes four key points.
  • The city's water supply is 100 percent groundwater
  • There is a limited supply of groundwater
  • New water quality regulations must be met but the necessary upgrades are costly
  • The health of the groundwater basin is at risk
Currently, the city relies mainly on intermediate depth aquifers. These aquifers have been a reliable source for groundwater since the 1950s. These aquifers have never failed to recharge even in leaner water years. The only question has been water quality. And what is important to understand, is that it is not water quality of the water supply, but rather water quality of the discharge. In other words, the water that we drink, unpleasant as it may be, falls within the standards that are considered acceptable by state and federal water standard guidelines. The problem is that when it is discharged, it does not fall within the standards of wastewater guidelines.

Here is where we get into controversy. The city, the city's engineers, and the city's water consultants that they have hired from various companies, have suggested that the only solution to this problem, is to import surface water from the Sacramento River, which requires building a costly bypass and intake facility to draw the water in. Now of course it turns out, that that water will always be available during the winter, but in drier years it will not be readily available for use during the summer months, which means we will have to rely on our own groundwater to supplement it regardless.

The city is arguing that there is a limited supply of groundwater, however, that is likely not true. First, as mentioned previously the intermediate-depth wells have never failed to recharge. There is no evidence at this point in time that deep aquifers have a limited supply. Most experts familiar with this situation have estimated that there is enough water from deep well aquifers to supply us with 30 to 50 years of water--even if they don't recharge.

Even under the so-called conjunctive use model that uses surface water in conjunction with groundwater, we require the use of deep well aquifers to provide the water that is not available during lean times from the Sacramento River.

Given current estimates of the capacity of the deep well aquifers, it is conceivable that we may have to, in 50 years, import surface water. The city is using this fact to argue that we need to do it now, but many experts not currently getting paid by the city suggest that there is no evidence that we need to do it now.

Economists would suggest that we forestall and avoid major capital improvement projects as long as possible. This is due to advances in technology that may improve upon current methods of delivery, thus reducing costs and make whatever investments and expenditures obsolete by the time they go online. We thus need to look into the possibility of going to deep well aquifers and see if that will give us the kind of quality improvements that would enable us to forestall such a huge expenditure--and we're talking hundreds of millions of dollars of Davis ratepayer money for the surface water project in addition to another set of hundreds of millions for the wastewater project, that we have to do now in order to meet current regulations.

Once again however, the city is trying to scare the citizens by implying that we have a limited supply of groundwater, that the health of the groundwater is at risk, and that the only way to meet new water quality regulations--and these are again outflow regulations not intake regulations--is to import surface water.

The city has by-and-large arrived at these conclusions without sufficient study of deep aquifer alternatives.

Why is that?

Here we need only to follow the money. Remember two weeks ago in the Davis Enterprise, we saw the picture of Jeff Pelz and Bruce West chatting with Don Saylor at his announcement party? These two gentlemen were from West Yost Associates. West Yost Associates is the water consulting engineer company that is in charge of designing and constructing the new water intake system.

So here you have the owners of a major company that will be earning tens if not hundreds of millions of dollars from a city contract, at the re-election party for a city councilmember who has been a stalwart for pushing through this project.

Coincidence? I don't believe in such things.

Here you have associates from a company standing to make huge profits from city contracts openly supporting a councilmember for re-election. At the same time, you have the city financing this neat little propaganda piece to its residents implying that we lack adequate water supplies without importing water and that the water is unsafe.

I do not trust the analysis from interested parties in this process. If we are going to undertake such a huge capital expenditure, I want to be sure. And when I see things like the picture of Don Saylor with West Yost Associates at his fundraising party and then read a propaganda piece funded by the city, I do not have confidence that we are getting independent analysis. I fear that we are getting sold this project by companies trying to make millions and councilmembers currying favors for key supporters.

We need to start asking tough questions about this process before it is too late.

---Doug Paul Davis reporting