The Switch in Time That Saved the Water Project


Sacramento-River-stockCommentary – Last week, the Davis City Council made a mistake – whether they feared the uncertainty of the untested rate structure or the public cries of a certain newspaper columnist – the council voted not only to move away from the WAC-recommended CBFR rate structure, but to preclude them from discussing it.

It is ironic that when the WAC was created, the Vanguard was not only a skeptic of the board, but an outright critic, fearing the likelihood that the body would merely rubberstamp the preferences of the members who appointed them.

So it is perhaps fitting that the final coup de grâce for the WAC was to disprove that notion, once and for all, by quite probably saving the project from near certain electoral defeat by sticking to their guns and reiterating the support of CBFR, even when the council told them not to.

We may never know for sure why the council ultimately changed their minds.  We know there were a lot of discussions behind the scenes – some of them heated and passionate.  In the end, we knew that some compromise would emerge when Dan Wolk and Rochelle Swanson came forward with compromise language very early Tuesday morning.

It was a compromise similar to what was floated by Mayor Joe Krovoza last week – for a two-year term of Bartle Wells, followed by three years of CBFR.

While Brett Lee pushed for what would have been our preference of one year of Bartle Wells, the end result was actually about 20 months of Bartle Wells with the new rates kicking in on May 1, 2013, and the CBFR on January 1, 2015, using the summer of 2014 numbers.

That quells one of the biggest calls of unfairness that people’s rates would be based on summer 2012 numbers when they did not get fair warning.  Despite the fact that most people, even without fair warning, would have been advantaged by CBFR from the outset, the council felt there was a legitimate fairness issue.

The other strongest criticism was the rate tier structure.  The council haggled over which arrangement to go with.  In the end, they decided to stick with the inclining rate structure, but expanding the first tier out to 18 ccf for the Bartle Wells portion of the cycle.  When it moves to CBFR, however, they would utilize the uniform block rate.

Despite the protests about the rates, the actual differences here were relatively small.  The same cannot be said for the difference between Bartle Wells and CBFR.

In an effort to make the twenty months of Bartle Wells more fair and also more similar to the current rate structure, council modified Bartle Wells, from the 50-50 fixed to variable rate ratio, to a 40-60 mix.  That means 40% of the bills from May 2013 until December 2014 will be a fixed rate based on meter size, the remaining 60% will be variable.

It is again a small difference, but it does reduce the cost on the low end by about $3.  The result is that the low-end users are still disadvantaged by this system over Loge-Williams, but now by $7 the first year rather than a full $10.

Councilmember Lucas Frerichs argued that, while he always favored moving toward CBFR, he was concerned previously about risk, “the risk of taking this, such a big issue, but in the past week having talked to not only the city’s financial advisor, but a number of folks in the bonding industry, I felt much more comfortable in moving in this direction.”

As Mayor Pro Tem Dan Wolk and Councilmember Rochelle Swanson put it in their statement early Thursday, “We had our concerns. The rate structure is unfamiliar to many members of our community, having only recently been invented in Davis by WAC members Frank Loge and Matt Williams. We were also concerned about an aspect of that structure that would have tied Davis water consumers to rates based on past summer usage without having the opportunity to warn people ahead of time.”

They argued in recent days, “A compromise option has been raised in our community.”

It is perhaps telling that this compromise was largely available last week.

What changed?  Perhaps it was the clear picture that, while the rate structure may be new, it is at the same time much more fair than the alternatives.

Mayor Joe Krovoza said on Tuesday, “The big picture is that the community is moving forward with a much needed water project and we figured out the most equitable way to spread those costs on a community that’s going to be sharing in the costs and with the very strong conservation incentives that we built in to the CBFR – we’re going to make sure that this project lasts this city for years and years and years.”

He added, “Without this innovative rate structure I could see us coming to a knee sooner.  With this rate structure, we’re going to lay off of our ground water even more which is going to protect a resource for this community that is irreplaceable.”

The Vanguard believes that the council made a mistake last week moving away from a rate structure that was not only innovative, but fundamentally more fair than the alternatives.

Whatever advantage the proponents of the project might have gained in clarity, they would have lost in equity.

While the Vanguard will not take a position on the ultimate question that is before the voters – whether or not Davis should go forward with the surface water project, the Vanguard believes that the city could not go forward with a rate structure that charged someone $60 who only used 5 ccf.

It was patently unfair and more expensive to three-quarters of our residents.  It is not that the rates will not go up under CBFR, it is simply that they will do so in a more fair and equitable way than under Bartle Wells.

With Bartle Wells in place, this measure surely would have gone down to resounding defeat.  While the implementation of this compromise does not guarantee victory for Measure I, it puts it at least on even footing.

Now it is up to the two campaigns to make their case to the voters of the city of Davis.  It should be an interesting debate.  We look forward to covering it.

—David M. Greenwald reporting


About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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22 thoughts on “The Switch in Time That Saved the Water Project”

  1. Ryan Kelly

    David, I don’t think we are voting on the rates. That is another process, correct? It is my understanding that the rates are going up regardless of this project and voting against this project will not change that entirely, am I correct?

    What is missing here is a discussion on sustainability and sound environmental planning. Is this water project the right thing to do?

    I have done my best to avoid reading the comments on this blog, because I found the postings to be off track, and at times full of personal hatred, which has made it difficult to figure out the core issues to consider.

  2. Will Arnold

    Those are great questions, Ryan. You are indeed correct. The Measure I ballot language is specific to approval of the surface water project itself. It is, however, contingent upon the Prop 218 process for the community to accept or reject the proposed water rates. While those are separate processes, water rates will be a significant factor when people cast their Measure I ballot. If the project did not require increased water rates, I think it’s safe to say everyone would be in favor of it.

    You are also correct that water rates must increase regardless of whether we move forward with the clean water project. Without the project, Davis runs the risk of being out of compliance with federal and state environmental and public health requirements. At minimum, we will have to spend millions upgrading and replacing our current well system and upgrading our wastewater treatment plant beyond what is already planned. And that assumes we can somehow avoid being fined for not meeting our environmental obligations.

    To answer your final question, the clean water project is essential for sustainability and sound environmental planning. It is getting more and more difficult to meet demands for water use and water quality regulations using existing infrastructure. A number of groundwater wells in Davis have been shut down and destroyed because they no longer work and can’t be fixed, or because they compromise water quality and public health. Even with major improvements to groundwater facilities (wells and pumps, for example), we would still fall short of meeting future water quality regulations for drinking water and treated wastewater. Reliance on 100% groundwater is shortsighted, as deteriorated wells are expensive to continually replace or upgrade. It’s the quality of the water – not the quantity – that is driving the shift from groundwater to surface water. We need a higher-quality source of water.

    According to the independent study prepared by water experts Edward Schroeder and George Tchobanoglous, “At this point in time, obtaining water from the Sacramento River is critical to securing a sustainable future for the City of Davis.”

  3. dlemongello

    It’s a small point but I believe we were going to use the 2011, not the 2012 usage for the CBFR rates if they had been used from the beginning. Remember, winter/spring 2010-2011 was wet and it actually rained in the summer of 2011, so everyone would have been given the benefit of having used less than usual if they had been paying attention rather than just using automatic watering. No method is perfect and the one thing that is imperfect about CBFR is if the property turns over, as do rentals quite frequently. The basis is then from the previous occupant. But I think it is a good method overall.

  4. Robb Davis

    Can anyone provide a link to the PowerPoint presentation on rates that Dianna Jensen presented at last night’s CC meeting? I am not sure where to look for it online and it was not part of the packet. Thanks.

  5. Michael Harrington

    Will: the campaigns will debate various issues, but I respectfully disagree with most of what you say above. This is a terrible project, too big, too expensive, lacks basic baseline features, lacks specific costs, and turns over our town sovereignty to Woodland via the JPA process.

    The real costs are being hidden by Measure I, such as the costs to finance (about 2.5 x the $116 million nut that needs to be paid up front to build the project), and costs for related system parts and upgrades.

    The rate suck far exceeds what is needed for the $116 million plus financing, so this is a huge bucket of pork for the same people who tried to force through the Sept 6 bogus rates.

  6. Don Shor

    Will Arnold has given information on one of several constituents of our current water supply that are problematic.

    The impetus for our surface water project is the water quality of the groundwater and the effect it has on our effluent and runoff. Water from the shallower wells (intermediate aquifer) has too much of some constituents. Water from the deeper wells (deep aquifer) has less of those, but still has too much of some others. The timing of the regulations that are driving this change to surface water requires us to get away from shallower wells soon. The very likely tightening of regulations of the other constituents means that we will need to reduce our use of the deeper wells within several years.

    The basis of it all is the impact of effluents on the Delta. Selenium and salinity are the primary concern, with boron as another constituent that is present in both aquifers at high levels (and there are other constituents of concern as well). The Delta is being regulated at the federal level, so regulations are not likely to be flexible. Implementation of many of the water quality standards is at the state level, so compliance can be subject to postponement if bona fide plans for mitigation/prevention measures are in place. But that just postpones the expense.

    If you are looking at the Davis water situation on a 30 – 50 year timeline, any further dollars expended on our well system are probably wasted. Many of the shallow wells are nearing the end of their useful lives. Replumbing or mandating dual plumbing in new construction would be relying on a water source that is likely to diminish. It would be an added expense with little value.

    We have now drilled some deeper wells so that the shortest-term quality issues are manageable. So we could delay our transition to surface water, do it more gradually than otherwise. But we ultimately need to get to surface water for a high percentage of our water supply. We can’t drill any more deeper wells. We have enough deep wells to get adequate capacity if we bring in some amount of surface water, mix it with our well water, and manage our discharge carefully. But bear in mind that the regulations are almost certain to be tightened steadily.

    So the key questions to me are:
    What is the lowest cost that gets us to the greatest amount of surface water over the next 30 – 50 years?
    In looking at any alternative, are we trading short-term savings for higher long-term costs? In other words, are we deferring expenses that would be cheaper if we accepted them now?

  7. Don Shor

    The key question for project opponents: What is your alternative?
    You are against this; what are you [i]for?[/i]
    How do you propose resolving the issue of water quality, and providing sustainable long-term water supplies for Davis?

    Our groundwater violates clean water standards, and we can’t keep pumping it forever. It is poor quality and there are issues of land subsidence. Use of the deeper wells for a long period of time is considered risky by the experts.

    The surface project answers the need. Davis and Woodland have acquired permanent water rights to Sacramento River water. It prevents costly fines by the state, allows recharge of the intermediate aquifers, and guarantees a long-term water supply.

    We have recently greatly increased our use of the deep aquifer, in spite of serious questions about quality and reliability. Most supporters agree it is stopgap, and the surface project will be necessary eventually. The extent of these aquifers is unknown, and quality is not as good as surface water.

    How long would Davis use the deep water before finally building the surface project? Estimates from blog posts range from 20 to 30 years or more (“a few decades”). The project opponents propose applying for waivers of water standards to delay the surface project. Current residents would pay to dig deep wells, passing the cost of surface water to future generations. Waivers last five years. Water quality standards are likely to get tighter. It’s a series of gambles with unknown odds.

    Others argue federal clean water standards will loosen. That seems unlikely to me. Or we should wait until the economy improves. But they offer no standard as to what economic conditions would be acceptable. They don’t say what rate increases might be acceptable. They are simply against higher costs. Either they believe the status quo is sustainable (it isn’t), or they are not thinking of the future.

    Some argue the surface water project will spur development. Davis voters have complete control: every peripheral development requires a vote of the public. Perhaps they don’t trust future voters to restrain growth.

    So as you talk to project opponents, ask them: “what is your alternative?”
    If they have one, please ask them to explain how it meets the standards of water quality and sustainability.

  8. dlemongello

    Don: “[i] and guarantees a long-term water supply[/i]. ” That really is a bit too optimistic for dry years and changing climate. It gives us is a right to water if there is any.

  9. dlemongello

    Crunching numbers I have to make some assumptions. Assume the average bill is $50 per month X 12 months per year, the debt is 2.5X$116 million =$290 million and there are 17,000 households. That generates $10.2 million per year. That = 28.5 years to pay it off. Obviously there are operating costs. But these numbers look to be in the ballpark. Please someone feel free to make better assumptions if I am way off on something and enlighten us.

  10. Don Shor

    With conjunctive use we’d have the backup option of increased well water in dry years. And with greater surface water usage, the intermediate aquifer could recharge. We can even pursue water banking (storage) by pumping surface water into the wells in some cases.
    In ’76-’77, when Bay Area residents had drastic curtailments of their water supplies, Davis residents were asked to reduce water use 10%. Every water district needs to plan for periodic droughts and the possible impact of climate change. The surface water project would put Davis and Woodland in a very good position for weathering (pun intended) drought scenarios.

  11. Ryan Kelly

    The “No on I” rebuttal statement included a call for exploring cost-effective solutions, specifically a regional treatment plant. West Sac and Woodland seem to already have plans moving forward with their own plans and it seems that Davis is not in a position to lead in this direction. This statement also seems in direct opposition to opponent’s criticism that working with another city in the region threatens our City sovereignty. Is a call for a regional treatment plant a true possibility?

  12. dlemongello

    Don, I agree with your conjunctive use statement, it puts us in a very good position with options for variable conditions from year to year. I guess the ability to pump into the wells would require some more infrastructure than what exists and some forethought that I had not heard mentioned. But giving the aquifer a break in many years would potentially be a good balance.

  13. Don Shor

    Davis firm West Yost overseeing aquifer storage test in Tracy: [url][/url]
    and Woodland: [url][/url]

  14. dlemongello

    So it looks like Woodland is building that infrastructure to make that a reality but I have not heard word 1 about Davis putting that into place. No doubt more cost associated with it but a good idea.

  15. davisite2

    “Assume the average bill is $50 per month….”

    Wrong assumption. Since the rates will near triple, you actually believe that the average water bill now is 1/3 of 50 or about $17/month??

  16. davehart

    DonShor, you know landscaping. Is it a reasonable goal to get by on 15ccf per month on a smaller east Davis lot? That is, without going fully native plants? Can we reach that goal and still garden in raised beds with some vegetables, herbs, lemon tree but no lawn? I know it depends on a lot of variables, but I’m wondering if I’m inefficient at 160 to 200ccf for the six months of summer including my 7 or 8 ccf indoor use.

    I guess I’m more focused on bringing my use numbers down to reduce my bill than worrying about how ‘fair’ or how expensive the project is.

  17. Don Shor

    If you choose plants that are relatively low-water for much of your landscape, plants that are very low-water for some parts, eliminate lawn, and increase path and hardscape areas, you could get to 15ccf. It would be a challenge. The lawn is the biggest factor: a small 1000 sq ft of lawn is 5 – 7 ccf (rounding) per month, depending on turf species. Inefficient sprinkler systems are, IMO, the second culprit in high water use.

    At some point I’ll publish a chart showing the range of choices you can make and how they affect your ccf.

    With careful design and placement of your shade and/or fruit trees, you can get sufficient shade on your paths and hardscape areas to mitigate the loss of cooling your lawn was providing. Fruit trees can be very low water users (I’m picking bags of mandarins right now from trees that I watered once this summer). Vegetable gardens are somewhat higher water users, but watering systems can be designed for maximum efficiency and vegetable gardens particularly benefit from mulching to conserve moisture and build the soil.

  18. Christine Casey

    Folks interested in learning how to reduce landscape water use might want to attend the upcoming water-wise garden tour sponsored by the City of Woodland’s Environmental Services division. This will be on June 1; check the calendar at for more information as the date gets closer.

    Last year’s tour attendees included many Davis residents. The 2013 program will include yards of varying size, exposure, and soil types and will range from properties that are over 90 percent natives to those that still retain substantial areas of traditional turf. Information on water use will be available for each landscape. Plant experts will be on hand to answer questions, and we’ll have samples of alternative low-water use turf species.

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