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Cleaner Sewage: At what price?
New rules could triple costs in some cities, leave others unscathed.

By Michael Kolber -- Bee Staff Writer

Published 2:15 a.m. PDT Friday, April 25, 2003

You would hope the Central Valley Wastewater Manager's Association would know a thing or two about sewage disposal. Apparently, it doesn't. Last month, it held a conference called, "What the Hell Do We Do With the Sewage?"

It's a question that has surprising urgency for communities throughout the state, particularly small and medium-size cities in the Central Valley. If sewage experts don't come up with an affordable solution soon, millions of Californians will find themselves paying much higher sewer bills.

Vacaville says it might have to triple its monthly sewage charges and quadruple its sewage connection fees. Davis has proposed raising its rates 45 percent. Galt, population 21,000, might need to spend up to $60 million to upgrade its wastewater treatment plant. Even the Los Angeles County Sanitation Districts could spend more than $2 billion -- to retrofit five of its 11 sewage plants.

The upgrades are necessary, plant operators say, because of strict new environmental rules that might force them to clean wastewater so thoroughly that it's safer to drink than tap water. But plant operators, and even some regulators, question whether the standards will do anything to improve water quality.

"It's absolutely insane," said Douglas Gault, the city of Galt's public works director.

"In some communities," said George Tchobanoglous, a University of California, Davis, engineering professor who largely supports the standards, "it'll be astonishing."

The upgrades stem from federal and state regulations adopted in 2000 that match longstanding environmental goals with modern technology:

* The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency set new limits for contaminants that sewage plants can spill into waterways.

* A state law established mandatory fines that cities must pay for violating clean water rules.

* Regulators were required to treat every river and stream in the state as if it could be used for swimming, drinking and fishing. That meant standards rose, particularly in shallow Central Valley and Sierra waterways where there is little other flow to dilute treated wastewater.

Dilution is key. Cities like Sacramento, Folsom and Elk Grove don't have to worry much about the new regulations because the Sacramento Regional Wastewater Treatment Plant, where they send their sewage, pumps its discharge into the Sacramento River. The large river easily dilutes the treated wastewater to below the new limits.

Two years ago, Vacaville was the first city that the Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board asked to meet the tough new standards. Since then, Davis, Woodland, Galt, Stockton and other cities have been told they will have to meet similar, or even stricter, standards.

Vacaville has appealed its permit requirements to the State Water Resources Control Board and Solano Superior Court. Environmental and public works organizations have filed briefs in the case, expected to be heard early this summer. The outcome could set a precedent for sewage regulation in the state.

State regulators don't tell cities what they have to do to clean their sewage, only how clean the end product must be. Cities say the standards are extremely difficult to achieve, but regulators and environmentalists say they're overstating the hurdles.

David K. Tompkins, Vacaville's assistant public works director, said he believes he would need to build a reverse osmosis unit to properly treat the sewage. That would mean pushing molecules of water through a special membrane, leaving very clean water on one side and salty brine on the other.

Simple enough -- except for the cost of the electricity needed to push the water, which would be equivalent to 20 percent of the city's residential power consumption. And what would Vacaville do with what Tompkins believes would be up to 3 million gallons a day of brine?

"We'd need 250 tanker trunks a day leaving the plant for a city of 90,000 -- and we don't know where they go," Tompkins said. "This is a pretty big deal."

So is the requirement that nearly every body of water be treated as a potential drinking water source. The state issued the sweeping regulation because it doesn't have the staff to determine how each of its thousands of bodies of water are used.

In court, Vacaville is attacking those assumptions. It says it shouldn't have to pay as much as $240 million to protect wildlife and human uses that might not exist -- or even potentially occur, as regulators believe. The new costs, officials estimated, would raise sewage rates from $23.58 to $73.58 a month.

The city's treatment plant pumps its treated wastewater into Old Alamo Creek, which has been redirected over the years for agricultural irrigation purposes. Vacaville officials say the only other flow in the stream besides its treated wastewater is dirtier water running off nearby farms.

Christopher L. Cabaldon, mayor of West Sacramento and a member of the Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board, said the board's hands are often tied by competing federal rules, court decisions and the inequities of geography.

Central Valley communities, he said, are penalized because they don't have a vast ocean in which to discharge their waste.

"There's no policy rationale why a resident of San Diego ought to pay a third as much or a tenth as much as resident of Elk Grove or Vacaville or Woodland," Cabaldon said. "By the luck of geography, you have widely disparate burdens on homeowners."

Modern water standards began with the federal Clean Water Act in 1972. Until 1987, the federal government provided grants to local agencies for sewage plant upgrades. But no grants are available now, and Bob Schneider, chairman of the Central Valley regional water board, said he knows many small and medium-sized cities will not be able to shoulder the costs comfortably.

"The economics of small communities and rural lifestyles are becoming more difficult," Schneider said. "I don't have all the answers."

Bill Jennings, who leads DeltaKeeper, an environmental organization that has filed a brief supporting the regulators in the Vacaville case, said he believes the city's sewage rates might rise to around $40 a month, not as much as the city contends. But he said he believes the public's interest in clean water outweighs its opposition to higher fees.

"Going to the movie and getting popcorn is $20," Jennings said. "Suddenly you realize wastewater treatment is one of the real bargains."

Cities say they have a hard time investing so much in clean water when even Jennings admits that runoff from farms is the "dominant source of aquatic life toxicity," and those runoffs are virtually unregulated.

Regulators and environmentalists said they believe they might as well limit the pollution they can control -- and with the Central Valley's growing population, sewage runoff could one day rival farm discharges.

"It's the costs of growth no one wants to pay," Jennings said.

Still, even Ken Landau, who oversees sewage plants for the Central Valley board, admits it's difficult to explain why the upgrades cost so much.

"If we're telling someone to spend a lot of money to protect something that no one believes is there, no one enjoys doing that," he said. "It is not a simple issue."



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About the Writer
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The Bee's Michael Kolber can be reached at (916) 478-2671 or mkolber@sacbee.com.

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