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Why are water and sewer rates up?

er be allowed to drink SLO may be forced to spend millions on treating its wastewater to reach a drinking water level standard--even though no one will evit

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ALWAYS FLOWIN’ :  SLO’s Wastewater Reclamation Facility is required by Fish and Game to pump 1.6 million gallons of reclaimed wastewater into SLO Creek every day. - PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
  • PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
  • ALWAYS FLOWIN’ : SLO’s Wastewater Reclamation Facility is required by Fish and Game to pump 1.6 million gallons of reclaimed wastewater into SLO Creek every day.

On May 6, the City of San Luis Obispo Utilities Department mailed out the spring issue of its quarterly publication Resource: Managing Community Resources for the Future. And if you’re like most of the public, you immediately threw it out. So what was that giant fold-out publication that looked like every other piece of junk mail in your mailbox?

As it stated, it was an “Update on Water and Sewer Rate Increases,” which proceeded to lay out the reasons why by July 1, 2012, the average family will pay an extra $1 per month for the base fee and $1 per unit of water used.

The largest reason for rate increases comes mostly from the city’s need to conform to regulatory requirements pressed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, various state environmental laws, and the Central Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board. This will require expensive upgrades to our current water reclamation facility, colloquially known as the “sewage plant.”

How expensive? Sixty-five million dollars expensive. 

On a daily basis, we flush our waste, stand up, hopefully wash our hands, and mosey on with the day feeling a little lighter. And for most of us, the smelly Wastewater Reclamation Facility isn’t a place to hang out—actually, you probably try to stay as far away as possible. But where that waste goes is a complicated and expensive process.

The $65 million project has mostly to do with updating a functioning but sort of archaic facility.

“The equipment, and the tanks, and some of the things from the ’20s, ’40s, and the ’60s that have reached the end of their useful life, those things would be fixed and replaced with newer more energy efficient equipment,” City Utilities Director Carrie Mattingly explained.

The city estimates that expanding the facility for projected growth expectations and repairing and replacing old equipment will cost around $45 million.

However, that number jumps to $65 million because the plant might have to entirely change the process by which it treats wastewater. Despite the fact that the recycled water will never be used as a potable water source, the city may be required to treat it to a drinking-water standard, which would add $20 million in plant upgrades.

David Hix, the city’s wastewater division manager, explained the current wastewater treatment process in layman’s terms: “Right now we are a nitrifying plant; we take the ammonia, one of the things used to treat wastewater, and convert that to nitrate, and we discharge that into San Luis Obispo Creek. So the water has nitrates in it, but it has no ammonia, and we did that in the late ’80s because ammonia is toxic to aquatic habitat. In the future, what might be required of us is a de-nitrification process.”

- ASK YOUR SEWER AND WATER QUESTIONS: - Stop by the Utilities Department at 879 Morro St. on any of the following Tuesdays: May 24 or 31, or June 7 between 5 and 7 p.m. -
  • ASK YOUR SEWER AND WATER QUESTIONS: Stop by the Utilities Department at 879 Morro St. on any of the following Tuesdays: May 24 or 31, or June 7 between 5 and 7 p.m.

Hix went on to explain that since the plant started this nitrification process, the creek has seen a resurgence of steelhead salmon. The Water Board confirmed this, saying that the National Marine Fisheries Service mandates the city to discharge a minimum flow of approximately 1.6 million gallons per day of tertiary treated wastewater into SLO Creek to promote aquatic habitat, namely steelhead.

However, as stated in a City Staff report, the $20 million upgrade is due to “the municipal and domestic (MUN) beneficial use of San Luis Obispo Creek”—meaning SLO Creek must meet the standards of drinking water. In 1988, the State Water Resources Control Board established the Sources of Drinking Water Policy, which deemed “all surface and ground waters to be suitable, or potentially suitable, for municipal or domestic water supply.”

This is problematic for the city because during some months of the year, all of the creek’s discharge is reclaimed water.

The city wants to remove the MUN designation from the creek on the belief that no one is going to be able to use the water from the creek for drinking water, even if it is denitrified, because it’s often dominated by recycled wastewater.

The city did a study called a Use Attainability Analysis that looked to see if anyone is using the water from the creek as drinking water, and whether or not it ever could be used as such.

“We found that no one was using the water for drinking, and that even if we treated it to that higher level, that it could never be attained,” Hix said. “The California Department of Health and our local environmental health agencies also said that it could never be used.”

Therefore, as revealed at the city’s meeting with the Regional Water Quality Board on May 5, the city is trying to de-designate the creek for MUN beneficial uses. The Water Board has its doubts about the plausibility of de-designation, but understands why the city is looking to change it.

The San Miguelito Mutual Water Company (SMMWC), which provides most of the drinking water throughout Avila Valley, responded to the city’s claims in a letter addressed to the Water Board on April 15, explaining that the company “has been pumping water from the SLO Creek Watershed for MUN uses since approximately 1979.” SMMWC is adamant that a MUN de-designation of SLO Creek not happen.

The Water Board is still looking to see how much SLO Creek impacts SMMWC wells, but for the moment claims “the SMMWC wells are reportedly not impacted with nitrate or other constituents at levels exceeding applicable drinking water standards.”

At this point, however, the creek hasn’t been de-designated, and the city is raising water and sewer rates.

“We have to be prepared,” Hix explained, “so that if for some reason de-designation doesn’t happen, then we need to have rates in place so that we can do that. We can always spend less money.”

The city has scheduled open hours for SLO residents to come in and ask questions about the new rates and any other sewer or water concerns. Stop by the Utilities Department at 879 Morro St. on May 24 or 31, or June 7 between 5 and 7 p.m.

 

Intern Lauren Cook can be reached via News Editor Colin Rigley at crigley@newtimesslo.com.

 

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