Word To The Wise: Surface Water Project – Sooner Rather Than Later

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water-rate-iconBy E. Roberts Musser

Reasons to do this project sooner rather than later:

  • Every expert willing to speak publicly seems to agree we need the surface water project sooner rather than later.  All the Davis and Woodland City Council members agree we do need the surface water project.
  • Construction/finance costs for the project are probably cheapest right now because the costs of lending are at record lows; as the economy improves, these costs are likely to increase.
  • Our deep level aquifers are probably going to be insufficient for the city’s future needs, because of subsidence/contamination problems.  Experts have publicly indicated this.
  • Fines by the SWRCB for noncompliance with the new water quality standards are mandatory not discretionary.  A representative from the SWRCB has publicly stated the fines will be steep enough so the city will not benefit financially for noncompliance.
  • Pushed by a citizen advisory committee, water rate increases over the next five years in Davis were reduced from 3.3 times the current rate to two times the current rate, by: delaying some components of the surface water project; assuming finance costs are as advantageous as they currently seem to be; and using some of the financing already collected for the wastewater treatment plant upgrade and putting it towards the surface water project.
  • A citizen oversight committee will be formed to: ensure costs of the project are kept to a minimum; and look at various other citizen issues of concern.
  • Water conservation will help keep down costs because: those who can afford the water rate increases may not bother conserving; many businesses and landlords do not have the ability to conserve water because of the nature of their business; water conservation should help keep costs down on the wastewater treatment plant upgrade.
  • Moving forward with the surface water project is the environmentally responsible thing to do.

Responses to those who have advocated to significantly delay/kill the surface water project using various questionable rationales:

  • The Prop 218 process was undemocratic.
    • The Prop 218 process was legally required by CA statute to be implemented by every city who proposes to raise any utility rate.
    • The referendum process is “undemocratic”, in the sense that: not all ratepayers will be able to vote on the referendum; some voters who are not ratepayers will be able to vote on the referendum.
  • The project can be delayed for 5, 10, 15, 20, 25, 30 years.
    • Variances can only be had for a maximum of 10 years.
    • It is highly unlikely water quality standards are going to become less stringent in the future. It is far likelier water quality standards will become more stringent.
    • To obtain a variance, the city of Davis would have to argue it is “economically infeasible” to move forward with the surface water project, which would not be a very convincing argument – when Woodland moves forward with the surface water project on its own, as it has said it is going to do if Davis won’t come along.
  • Unnamed sources are saying the surface water project should be delayed until the wastewater treatment plant is paid off.
    • Two UCD experts already consulted agree the surface water project should be built first and foremost, without delay.  One of those same experts reiterated this opinion in a recent op-ed article in the Davis Enterprise.
    • Other experts in various reports have also taken the same viewpoint as the two UCD experts.
    • Not a single expert has come forward publicly to say the surface water project should be delayed.
  • The fines imposed by SWRCB will be cheaper to pay than implementing the surface water project.
    • The SWRCB has publicly declared that stiff fines may be imposed if the city fails to come into compliance with the new water quality standards.  According to a representative of the SWRCB, the idea behind the fines is to ensure a city gains nothing financially from its failure to comply with the new water quality standards.
    • If the city is thus fined steeply enough that there will be no financial gain from not doing the surface water project, then the city will be paying the same price as if it had moved forward with the surface water project – but have nothing to show for it.
    • Woodland is already paying fines, despite making efforts to come into compliance with water quality standards by approving the surface water project, which is a pretty good indication the SWRCB means business.
  • Delaying the surface water project will not cause it to be any more expensive.
    • The savings on the wastewater treatment plant upgrade are predicated on building the surface water project first and foremost, according to UCD experts who have spoken publicly on this issue.
    • It is very likely as the economy improves, construction/finance costs will increase, making the delayed surface water project considerably more expensive in the future.
    • As our mid-level wells fail from subsidence/contamination, more deep level aquifer wells will have to be drilled, tacking millions onto the costs of a delayed surface water project.
    • Any fines that are incurred for a failure to come into compliance with the new water quality standards must be added as costs of delaying the surface water project.
    • Costs of maintenance of the current inadequate and crumbling system the city has now will also have to be factored in as an additional cost of delaying the surface water project.
    • A more expensive delayed surface water project again “kicks the can down the road” for future ratepayers; and misses yet another opportunity to gain a reliable source of water at a cheaper cost.
  • We need to delay the surface water project to make sure the school and city taxes are approved by voters.
    • A costlier delayed surface water project will ultimately mean citizens will have less money available to pay for school and city taxes.
    • School and city taxes arise frequently (as little as every 2 years), so will be always be in competition with the surface water project whether it is built now, or in 5, 10, 15, 20, 25 or 30 years from now.
    • A reliable source of water is critical to survival.  Citizens, including students, cannot survive without water.
    • Each tax needs to stand on its own merits, rather than pitting one against the other.  The city needs a reliable source of water; and its schools; and its parks.
  • Woodland will not be able to pay its fair share for the surface water project.
    • Woodland is ahead of Davis increasing its water rates.  It ramped up its water rate increases for the past 3 years, approving year four rate increases.
    • Woodland has publicly stated it will go it alone if necessary, because it is already being fined for a failure to come into compliance with the new water quality standards.
    • Woodland is concerned Davis will not be willing to pay its fair share.
  • There will be huge water rate increases after year 5.
    • After year 5, the city must implement a Prop 218 notice and allow rate payers to approve any increases.    Another referendum process is also possible.
    • No new increases are permitted unless approved by citizens.
  • There are going to be huge cost overruns.
    • A citizen advisory committee will be formed, to keep such costs in check.
    • Citizens can refuse to pay for any cost overruns through the Prop 218 process and/or a referendum.
    • The cost overruns are more likely to occur if the surface water project is delayed.
  • Developers are supporting the surface water project to increase their ability to make profits from more development.
    • Even those proposing delay of this project have conceded the surface water project is necessary.
    • The current water system is crumbling into disrepair, and cannot be maintained for very long.  The city has already had to close contaminated wells.
    • The primary reasons for this project is to avoid fines for a failure to come into compliance with new water quality standards; to make sure the City has a reliable source of water which is now clearly inadequate for long term use, especially in the summer or times of drought.  This would be true whether or not there is any new development or not.
    • Measure R is already in place to control growth of new development.

The following adages come to mind in support of doing the surface water project sooner rather than later:

  • It would be “Pennywise and pound foolish” to delay the surface water project;
  • “Pay me now or pay me later!” in regard to the surface water project, only later we are likely to be paying much more.

Lesson to be learned:  Try and become as educated as possible on local issues.

Elaine Roberts  Musser is an attorney who concentrates her efforts on elder law and aging issues, especially in regard to consumer affairs.  If you have a comment or particular question or topic you would like to see addressed in this column, please make your observations at the end of this article in the comment section.

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22 thoughts on “Word To The Wise: Surface Water Project – Sooner Rather Than Later”

  1. biddlin

    Too reasonable, ERM ! You are up against opportunists and hysterics who are determined to add hundreds of thousands of dollars to the cost of your water projects by calling an election that will only show the arrogance and ignorance of its proponents . As I posted a few days ago, egos will be the most expensive component in this project .

  2. E Roberts Musser

    To biddlin: If the opposition has to resort to hysterics rather than logic, it just goes to show how weak their position is. As I said in another post, the bottom line is the bottom line – water will have to be paid for, and paid for dearly, as the new water quality standards kick in. Either we take our medicine now to prevent problems in the future, or we delay taking the medicine and deal with worse problems later, that may not be fixable…

  3. hpierce

    Elaine… with all due respect, it appears that there will be a vote… the voters will act based on the principles of R&D (rhetoric and demagoguery). This is not good.

  4. E Roberts Musser

    [quote]Elaine… with all due respect, it appears that there will be a vote… the voters will act based on the principles of R&D (rhetoric and demagoguery). This is not good. [/quote]

    I too believe there will be a vote, which is fine with me. However, because of the R&D, it is all that much more important to counter it with reasoned logic, so that the R&D is not allowed to stand alone as if it were fact, no?

  5. Observer

    Great report! I’m not too worried about there being a vote. In the end, I think calmer heads will prevail, and the project will be approved.
    Besides, the opposition is splintered. If you read the op ed in Sunday’s paper, the argument was that the well water is more pure than river water and sufficient for the city’s needs. The other half argues that we need the river water, but should wait 20 years or so. Neither argument really holds water (sorry! Couldn’t resist)and I think the voters will agree.

  6. Sue Greenwald

    I have already addressed these talking points on David’s blog previously. They rest on many assumptions that I just don’t agree with.

    This is not a political issue, as some of the posters here seem to want to believe. It is an issue of how to solve our long-term infrastructure needs in a way that will have the least negative impact.

    If there is a referendum, I am hoping that we can dissect each point and do a real cost/benefit analysis of the best way to proceed.

    The basic premise, that it will cost less to take on $300 million worth of new obligations now rather than to phase them in, is a question that should be seriously discussed. From the facts I have gathered and from what I have inferred from basic economic principles, I that is unlikely — if we can work successfully with the WRCB.

    Remember, while interest rates in general are low now, municipal bond interest rates are relatively high now, and whether or not we are entering a period of sustained economic slowdown is a very opened question. Many economists do not expect our economy to come roaring back.

    We might be able to inflate our way out of this massive debt, but we could also face a period of economic stagnation with lower construction costs, more stimulus grant funding for the project (there is virtually none now, while in past eras much of projects like these were federally and state funded), a shake out of bankrupt local government entities with subsequent return to a reasonable spread between municipal and taxable bond rates, etc.

  7. Sue Greenwald

    Also, keep in mind that their are potential costs to doing major infrastructure projects earlier rather than later. Technology changes, regulations change (and in this environment I would not assume that they will “just get stricter”), and circumstances change.

    For example: If we had delayed our current wastewater treatment plant construction for a few years, it would not be obsolete now, and we would not have to be spending $100 million on a new plant.

  8. Don Shor

    [i]I am hoping that we can dissect each point and do a real cost/benefit analysis of the best way to proceed. [/i]

    I would like to have a fact-based discussion.
    The problem with doing a cost/benefit analysis is that some parts of this are hard to quantify:
    Overdraft of the mid-level aquifers;
    subsidence (cost of well damage can be quantified; permanent loss of groundwater capacity cannot readily be assessed or quantified);
    possible overdraft of the deep aquifer;
    contamination of the deep aquifer;
    impact of continued release of water to the Delta that violates water quality standards.

  9. E Roberts Musser

    To Sue Greenwald: Not a single expert who is willing to say so publicly agrees with your “ifs”, “assessments”, “whether or not”, “we could also”, etc. THere is no question this is a cost/benefit/risk analysis, and no one has a crystal ball. However, facts, logic and the experts seem to be on my side…

  10. Sue Greenwald

    Don Shor: Fine. We can certainly discuss these risks. We do know that one of the leading groundwater experts said that any degradation of the deep aquifer quality would come slowly and over the course of “decades to centuries”. Since I was only contemplating a phasing in period of around 20 years, and since we would be ready to go with a surface water project quickly in any case, I personally don’t see that as a serious risk, but we could certainly have a community-wide discussion of it.

    Remember, there is always some risk of river water contamination as well and supply problems as well.

  11. Sue Greenwald

    [b]E. Roberts Musser[/b]: We have been over this ground before. We certainly had a groundwater expert publicly agree that groundwater was replenishing itself and that risk to quality would occur gradually and over periods of “decades to centuries”.

    As to logic: Elaine, I just don’t see that. What I see is a different risk/benefit analysis as to the fiscal and supply issues, plus a few very real differences as to opinion of the “facts”.

  12. Don Shor

    [i]since we would be ready to go with a surface water project quickly in any case[/i]

    What would trigger the decision to go to a surface water project? Discovery that the deep aquifer is contaminated? Another ten inches of subsidence? Twenty?
    I recall (I’ll try to find the source) that test wells have shown that UC Davis wells are likely to drop if we start pumping from the deep aquifer. If they drop, is that the trigger to embark on the surface water project? Would you propose a quantifiable trigger for what is essentially a political decision? Do you think Mike Harrington would sign off on that?

  13. JustSaying

    Elaine–Two initial reactions:

    First, how were you able to get [u]Vanguard[/u] space for this interesting summary? David has made it very clear over and over again the past three weeks that this is not the time to be discussing these issues, since there’ll be plenty of time during the referendum campaigning to handle these topics. (On the other hand, maybe that only applied to Steven Souza.)

    Second, ever wondered while your thoughtful comments are disparaged as, ugh, “talking points” while, on the other hand, my thoughtful comments are thoughtful comments and worthy of everyone’s serious consideration?

  14. Michael Harrington

    Everyone: My bottom line here is: I will never, ever sign off on a project that gives over the legal, fiscal, and political control of our essential public utility of water to Woodland, the JPA, or the likes of the staff-recommended United Water (indicted on multiple felonies in Indiana) or any other private company.

    All the rest is open to discussion, but Davis voters should own, control, and manage our water. Period. With City employees who are paid good wages for providing us with high wuality water.

    Dear Mr. Marbles and the JPA: sorry, but we will do it ourselves.

    ps: when this is over, I am going to ask for a full accounting of all of the ratepayer money that has been sucked out of our wallets since 2000 for surface water preparations.

  15. Sue Greenwald

    @[b]Don Shor[/b]: From talking with a person who did the subsidence studies and looking at Graham Fogg’s written statements, I wouldn’t expect subsidence to be great during this time frame.

    I think that serious problems would be apparent from rapid changes from the water quality results from our deeper wells, etc.

    I disagree with you that this is a political decision. I think it is a risk/benefit analysis situation. Again, we could avoid more risks by having six fire stations instead of four, or by doubling our police force.

    I don’t really care whether Mike Harrington agrees with me or not.

  16. Don Shor

    Subsidence at nearly one inch per year based on the rate from 1999-2002. Unless we go mostly to the deep water, which risks affecting UC Davis wells. Which risks contamination of that aquifer as well. Once the deep aquifer is contaminated, it’s hard to decontaminate it. And you can’t undo one inch per year of subsidence.

  17. Sue Greenwald

    Don,
    If the deep water aquifer develops more salinity or mineralization (it is a stretch to call it contamination and not to call the river water contaminated) because of 20 more years of our urban-use pumping (we don’t have any data on agricultural use pumping), it is not clear to me that it will be that useful in the long-run anyway, since we will be using it even with the surface water project and agricultural use will continue. I would need to talk a lot more with the groundwater experts before I would jump to conclusions.

  18. Don Shor

    The deep wells are the primary potable water source for UC Davis. They have a ten year contract to bring in Solano project water for potable water. Then they assume that there will be Sacramento River water. If the surface water project is delayed 20 to 25 years, they will need deep aquifer water. Punching bore holes from more-saline intermediate aquifers into the less-saline deep aquifer risks mineralization of the deep water, such that it would then possibly violate water quality standards. Increased subsidence could cause other problems. You can see why UC Davis might be concerned about increased pumping by the City of Davis, and might act aggressively to protect their resource.

  19. Adam Smith

    [i]ps: when this is over, I am going to ask for a full accounting of all of the ratepayer money that has been sucked out of our wallets since 2000 for surface water preparations. [/i]

    And then, I’ll huff and I’ll puff and I’ll drink all your water up!

  20. E Roberts Musser

    [quote]First, how were you able to get Vanguard space for this interesting summary? [/quote]

    I write a monthly article for the Vanguard, and I chose to write on the surface water project bc of all the hysteria being generated by opponents. The Vanguard is actually very good about allowing opposing pts of view, e.g. Alan Pryor’s excellent article on the Surface Water Project.

    [quote]Second, ever wondered while your thoughtful comments are disparaged as, ugh, “talking points” while, on the other hand, my thoughtful comments are thoughtful comments and worthy of everyone’s serious consideration?[/quote]

    LOL

  21. E Roberts Musser

    [quote]The deep wells are the primary potable water source for UC Davis. They have a ten year contract to bring in Solano project water for potable water. Then they assume that there will be Sacramento River water. If the surface water project is delayed 20 to 25 years, they will need deep aquifer water. Punching bore holes from more-saline intermediate aquifers into the less-saline deep aquifer risks mineralization of the deep water, such that it would then possibly violate water quality standards. Increased subsidence could cause other problems. You can see why UC Davis might be concerned about increased pumping by the City of Davis, and might act aggressively to protect their resource.[/quote]

    Poste, reposte, and decapitated! Excellent points!

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