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Thursday, December 18, 2008

Water Issue: Can Council Stop This Runaway Locomotive?

In January of 2007, the Vanguard featured an article entitled: "Tracing the recent history of the water supply project." In it, we argued that there was a series of decisions that changed the trajectory of water policy to become a far more expansive and more expensive project than the original course of action. The remarkable feature is that at no point was a decision actually made to proceed with this project. Instead, there were a series of staff recommendations approved by council to explore various options which lumped together became a decision.

This is very important in trying to understand where we are right now. There is a basic inertial quality to this issue that is rather remarkable. There are basically two forces driving the process, neither of which are necessarily council approval. First, the concern that we will lose our place in line. Second, the concern that down the line the costs of construction will increase if we delay now.

The result I think is that at this point the water project has moved far further than where the council actually stands on this issue. The council has never made key decisions.

What we are seeing now is a realization both by the council and the public that the cost of this project is increasingly becoming problematic. As the public is slowly awakening from its slumber on this issue, the sobering fact has awakened it that this project means as much as $200 per month hikes in water costs. The city has already gotten a glimpse of what that might look like when they did something as simple as change the methodology for assessing the sewer rates for some a small group of people, that meant a huge increase in their sewer bill--something that was limited and temporary caused an uproar. What will a massive hike to people's monthly water rates do?

We see these countervailing inertial forces at work on Tuesday during the water discussion. Council really was trying to put the brakes on the project a little bit and try to explore alternative means to accomplish water changes. For instance, the city is looking for an extension before they begin getting fined for having water outflow that does not meet quality standards. Currently the city has until 2015, in February the Regional Water Quality Control Board will discuss granting Davis an extension of two years.

The board was torn on Tuesday night as to whether to have an independent firm for value engineering of the Preliminary Design for Secondary replacement project. Council was leery of the added cost and wanted to look at other alternatives. In fact, they will look at other alternatives concurrent with the value engineering.

The basic argument that prevailed once again was the issue that if we do not do this now, it throws off our timetable and may increase our costs. The costs of the independent firm not withstanding.

There were two basic viewpoints raised at the council meeting. Councilmember Sue Greenwald repeatedly asked what the rush was here. On the other hand, Mayor Pro Tem Don Saylor suggested that the council's questions and alternative suggestions have already been asked and explored.

In the middle was Mayor Ruth Asmundson concerned about two types of costs, the first the cost of the value engineering firm and second the cost of delay. The cost of delay won out for now. Councilmember Stephen Souza was also in the middle, his compromise was for the council to take a field trip to look at how other communities do this, while at the same time continuing forward.

The breaking point for this project will be when either Mayor Asmundson or Councilmember Souza become concerned enough with the costs that they can pull away from the inertial pull that this project has been taking. They came closer on Tuesday than they have in the past, but city staff was still able to push the project forward with the warning about increased costs and place in line.

The city desperately needs a paradigm shift here. There needs to be some alternative that can come forward. They also have to weigh the magnitude of the fines compared with the cost of repair.

However, we are beginning to see a shift. Council is recognizing that this is cost prohibitive and that the public will likely balk at it when it becomes clear to them just how much this will cost. The question remains whether they can stop this train before it runs off the tracks.

---David M. Greenwald reporting