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Friday, July 20, 2007

City Needs to Examine Water Issues Before the Final Bill Hits the City Ratepayers

The water issue is not an issue that has resonated with the Davis public just yet. In part, perhaps, because I think most people simply just are not aware of the magnitude of the increase in service charge they are facing in the coming years. Many families will be looking at a two to three fold increase (at minimum) in the coming years. We are talking about paying $2000 per year just in water.

Tuesday night the Davis City Council approved a resolution adopting the Yolo County Integrated Resource Water Management Plan (IRWMP). This is a regional plan that is broad in scope. In fact, so broad that the city produced a large and thick booklet. That booklet was delivered on Friday afternoon to the Davis City Council members--full of complex water-related issues.

Councilmember Lamar Heystek questioned the staff for delivering such a thick and dense document at such late a point. And while staff was apologetic about the completion time, there are a number of issues that could be brought up just from this fact. The Brown Act requires that all public meetings receive 72 hours notice. The city council agenda and packet are generally complete sometime on Friday afternoon. In technical terms that is around 96 hours plus in advance.

However, from a practical standpoint, there are problems with such timing. The basic information about agenda items is indeed available well in advance. However, anything dense or complicated has practical limitations. For instance, a member of the public probably would not be aware of the existence of this particular bound report until Monday. Thus from a practical standpoint, the public for some things really only has 24 to 36 hours notice. The weekend serves as time from the standpoint of the Brown act, but also as a dead zone in terms of the ability to learn about some of the more complex agenda items.

While all considerations have to be balanced with a practical understanding of the duties and tasks of city staff, a Thursday delivery date would push the time forward by 24 hours, but allow people time both during the week prior and the week of to more fully explore the council's agenda items.

Councilmember Heystek also introduced a substitute motion on Tuesday, to exclude from the report material related to the proposed but not passed water supply project. Though both Councilmember Heystek and Mayor Sue Greenwald made a valiant effort to convince Councilmember Stephen Souza onto their side, in the end, that substitute motion failed by a 3-2 vote and the main motion passed by a 3-2 vote.

In practical terms, this vote probably was only symbolic. Councilmember Stephen Souza made the point that this does not authorize anything new, and he is correct. On the other hand, as we have seen with this issue, much of what has been pushed along has been done either without votes from council to change course, or by piecemeal votes. One wonders if there will actually be a final vote on such a project or if at some point it be brought forth bit by bit into fait accompli status.

There are a number of questions about this project that need to be addressed. The first question is whether or not we need to have the water supply project at all. The city maintains that the water quality is not suitable presently. In fact, the water quality is perfectly suitable for drinking, what it is not suitable for is outflow back into the environment. That in itself begs a number of questions--chief among them, is whether we cannot deal simply with the present water supply.

The next question is whether we can, as Mayor Greenwald claims, rely on deep well aquifers to supply water for the next 30 to 50 years. That time, would allow for a number of things including allowing us to pay off the water treatment center, so that the residents of Davis are not hit with a double whammy of rate increases. The Mayor has especially objected to the lack of study from independent consultants and experts about the feasibility of such an alternative plan.

In part there needs to be a healthy skepticism about the current arrangement between the city and their hired water experts and consultants. Part of that skepticism is based on the idea that the same people asked to evaluate the water situation are the same people who would profit from the city adopting a water supply project.

Mayor Sue Greenwald has repeatedly suggested that the "experts" she has talked to have presented very different findings than have the city paid engineers and consults. Perhaps it is time that they come forth and speak before the public.

We also must question the size of the water supply project. As Councilmember Heystek suggested, the supply is far larger than the city's current needs, and he wondered aloud if the actual goal was to enable and facilitate growth rather than to fix a water supply problem.

Finally, we must again question the judgment of councilmembers such as Councilmember Don Saylor, who has voted each time to support and push this project ahead while at the same time, members of the West Yost Associates consulting firm have attended his campaign announcement party and undoubtedly in part helped to bankroll his re-election bid.

That leaves us with the vexing question as to whether we are getting the best governance or simply the best governance that money can buy.

It seems to me, that in the end, this entire water supply system might be our only choice. But it is estimated at this point to cost around $300 million. My guess is that the actual price will only be higher. I would like to see a concerted effort by city staff and our elected officials to take as many measures as possible to ensure that the solution that we have selected is the only reasonable alternative that we can take. It may end up being the course that we are presently on, but I would like for us to ask all the tough questions. In the meantime, I would like to see the same answers from people who will not financially benefit from these decisions as West Yost Associates will. In short, I want to hear from Mayor Greenwald's experts, it is time for her to stop talking about what they are saying and actually have them come forward and show us all what they have apparently told the Mayor. The public has the right to know.

---Doug Paul Davis reporting