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Sunday, August 17, 2008

Water Project: Responding to Councilmember Saylor's Letter to the Editor

In response to the emerging debate over water as the result of the council dispute that emerged as much over process on July 29 as over policy, Mayor Pro Tem Don Saylor wrote a letter to the editor of the Davis Enterprise. It was a letter than was long on conciliatory rhetoric, but unfortunately short on detailed substance.

This story will attempt not necessarily to fill in that detail, as we have presented greater detail in a number of other locations. The main goal here is to raise questions that will need to be more definitively answered by the city.
"Council members are acutely aware of the costs of this project. We are also acutely aware of the importance of securing a reliable water supply as our wells are depleted, and meeting state requirements to reduce environmental impacts from our wastewater discharges."
This is the crux of the matter that needs more definitive answers. I have watched these meetings on water since January 2007 and my overriding sense is that with the exception of Councilmember Sue Greenwald and at times Councilmember Lamar Heystek, there are few tough and probing questions from council on these points.

The central argument that proponents have put forth is as follows:

The problem that Davis faces is that the water discharged by the city does not meet current standards for water quality. This is primarily a water supply issue because although the water meets drinking standards as it enters into one's tap, it does not meet outflow standards.

The tough question that Councilmember like Don Saylor never seem to press for is whether the only solution is to go forth with a water supply plan immediately.

But the statement does something else--it rhetorically acknowledges that there will be costs to this project without actually discussing what those costs will be and the fact that the costs will be currently accrued with a wastewater treatment facility--a project that everyone agrees needs to happen now.

Estimates for this cost to the ratepayer begin with a doubling of the cost of water on a monthly basis to an increase of $100 to $200 depending largely on estimates for the cost of the project. These costs have gone up considerably over the course of this water discussion.

[For a good overview of the history please see my article from January 2007 where I trace the debate over water projects back to the beginning of this process. ]

There has been little discussion or acknowledgment about who in the public can afford it. And while the cost of delaying the water supply project may increase the overall cost of the project, it may also decrease the hit on the individual ratepayer in terms of their monthly bill. People on fixed incomes will be hurt most by these rate hikes.

Some have suggested that the taste of water alone necessitates this change. In fact, one can get better tasting water for much cheaper. For instance, one can get a gallon of water at a grocery story for less than forty cents a gallon. Even if one gets close to three gallons a day that way, a large amount of drinking water, the cost per month would be less than the cost of this project. Other filtration systems are even less in cost. For instance, I use a Brita filter which runs me less than $10 per month, much less than a rate hike in water.

Mayor Pro Tem Saylor continues:
"The NWRI panel recommended that Davis pursue a balanced water portfolio combining surface water, ground water, conservation and reuse strategies. The unanimous findings of the panel are that no other alternative exists that would support these objectives as effectively, economically or environmentally as the proposed surface water project."
This runs along with the findings that the city has had for quite some time. Unfortunately it appears that Councilmember Sue Greenwald has some information that contradicts these findings. It would be helpful if the city council were willing to bring in those purported experts to give them a different view and a different consideration. However, instead of listening to what Councilmember Greenwald had to say and allowing her to continue to ask questions, she was inappropriately cut off. One is forced to ask what the council majority is afraid of by indulging the questions of Councilmember Greenwald or even more responsibly by allowing her experts to come forward. They would then have fuller information and could make an even better decision.
"All five council members have stated that surface water will be needed at some time. The panel report and presentation on July 29 concluded that delay in pursuing this project would result in significant cost increases, loss of winter water, loss of water rights and other serious negative consequences."
The first sentence is of course true. And it may be that the rest follows from it. But again, that is in dispute.

The staff report from the July 29, 2008 meeting read:
"The Panel concluded that the most serious consequence from postponing the project is the probability of losing the pending appropriative right to withdraw up to 46,100 acre-feet of water per year from the Sacramento River."
They further argued:
"The Panel concluded that postponement of the project to a later date would likely result in the loss of upstream water currently available for purchase to supplement the amount of water needed during the summer months."
This is true to some degree but it also somewhat misleading. At previous water workshops it became clear that winter water would almost always be available in some degree. However, during the summer months it becomes more problematic. The city would be allowed to extract water depending on the current water flow of the Sacramento River. As summer goes on, the amount of water to be extracted from the river will invariably go down. During dry years, the Sacramento River may not have enough water for extract at all. That would force the city to once again rely almost completely on ground water for its summer water supply--when water needs will be invariably higher.

In other words, when we need water the most, the water supply will be most problematic. And if that happens, will we even after these huge capital project expenditures, still remain out of compliance with discharge standards. These are serious questions that need to be asked and answered somehow.

If global warming reduces the amount of rainfall or even snowpack in the Sierras, the amount of runoff may be reduced into the Sacramento River. At the very least the water supply may fluctuate more widely meaning some years we have plenty of water and other years we do not.

That does not take into account the idea of holding our place in line. In theory, at present, the experts are correct about the line. But supposing reduced water in the future, where will that leave us and this line? Will communities such as Davis get nosed out by increasing needs by say Los Angeles in a future where there is less water? Climate change makes this a much more uncertain situation.

Have these tough questions been asked by the council sufficiently? Or are we potentially throwing a large amount of money down the drain for a solution that may not be here in the future?

Of course, the letter to the editor is not just about water, but about the council discussion as well. Councilmember Saylor refers the public to the streaming video and comments on council ground rules.
"The July 29 council discussion can be viewed on streaming video at the city of Davis Web site under 'City Council' video archives section (about three hours and 39 minutes into the meeting).

During that meeting, the mayor called a recess, acting under the provisions of the council ground rules. These ground rules govern your council's proceedings and conduct. They can be found [here]."
I invite the public to once again view the Youtube video which contains the final three minutes of Councilmember Greenwald's question-answer session with the water consultants, and then shows what transpired after the Mayor attempted to cut her off.

Unfortunately Mayor Pro Tem Don Saylor delivers for the public very little detail on the water project that will severely increase the monthly cost of water to ratepayers. There are a number of questions that I would like to see addressed.

I have no problem with holding one's place in line at this point. I would however like to see each of the councilmembers aggressively but respectfully grill the consultants much as Councilmember Greenwald has. If the answer is at the end of the day, that we must go forward, I want it to be because we have no other choice rather than because we did not look into all the alternatives because the experts told us this was the only choice.

One point that needs to be explored is whether these consultants have industry ties. That was one of my problems with the original group of consultants--they seemed to have a financial stake in the city going forward with the process. Too often, the ties between consultant and industry are blurry at best. I think the city council, if they wish to be thorough and responsible, should encourage Sue Greenwald to put her consultants and experts forward and see if their advise is different, and if it is different, try to determine why and whether that advise might not be a better alternative. What does the council have to lose?

---Doug Paul Davis reporting