On Tuesday, March 5, all ballots are due to the Yolo County elections office for a "yea" or "nay" on Measure I a binding vote on whether or not Davis should proceed with a joint regional surface water supply project with Woodland. What's the plan? Draw new surface water from the Sacramento River north of I-5's overcrossing, treat it, and use it as our primary source of water.
The driver for the project is a groundwater basin that is degrading, primarily in its quality. This is problematic since both cities rely entirely on groundwater. The degradation is now serious enough that Woodland has been fined for wastewater discharge violation. Davis must anticipate the same.
We have stretched our total dependence on groundwater beyond any reasonable definition of sustainability. We struggle to maintain the quality of our 20 wells. For Davis' population of 65,000, the "mop and bucket" approach to well maintenance is increasingly costly. Just this week we were forced to shut off a "high quality" deep well based upon manganese concentrations. In 2010, we spent $2.6 million to treat for manganese at another well and two more face similar fates. That's potentially $10 million for one constituent at just four sites. Reports mount of pending state regulations of Chromium 6 (think Erin Brockovich) at levels that will affect over half of our wells.
Diminishing groundwater quality leads to higher treatment costs. The water quality into our system from our 14 intermediate aquifer wells makes complying with wastewater discharge regulations increasingly difficult. Diminished water quality into our system comes as high concentrations of salts, selenium, boron, Chromium 6, nitrates, manganese and arsenic. At our wastewater plant, salt and selenium are costly to remove. Without removal, these constituents have adverse environmental impacts on waterways and wetlands.
Six city wells tap the deep aquifer. Some say we should increase the draw or proceed to full dependence on the higher-quality deep aquifer. UC Davis hydrogeologist Graham Fogg advises that we proceed with great caution, stating, "Concentrating more groundwater in the deep aquifer will only accelerate the downward movement of contaminated groundwater toward the deep aquifer. In other words, just because the deep aquifer is deep does not mean it is invulnerable to contamination."
When the deep aquifer fails, what's the likelihood of Davis quickly finding a new source of water at an affordable price in water-starved California? And when quality is the main issue, conservation alone can't be the answer.
New surface water supplemented by our highest quality wells will decrease concentrations of salt and selenium in our wastewater, reduce the cost of wastewater discharge, and offset our over-dependence on the intermediate and deep aquifers. We can then use low-quality well water for parks irrigation. Sacramento River water available in the winter can be stored in the aquifer for summer use. Our new project will allow flexible, smart water management.
Yes, water rates will triple with the project. But, they will double with or without the project. Sans project, it will be costly to maintain our antiquated infrastructure, not to mention paying fines.
We have worked diligently to identify economies to reduce project costs. Sharing all costs with Woodland, and with Conaway Ranch for the river intake, saves Davis $30 million or more. The current economic climate for competitive construction bids and financing is excellent. Federal and state matching funds are coming together nicely for this multi-city, ag-urban collaboration.
The cities will own and control the project. We plan to contract out for the plant's operation with a full ability to cancel the contract if there are problems, or buy out the contract early if we so choose. In the meantime, costs will be lower and ratepayers will have greater certainty. Privatization problems in other communities are protected against in our contract.
Project detractors have helped us find a better solution. Following a successful 2011 referendum, we hit the pause button to fully evaluate all pros and cons. A West Sacramento option was studied and dismissed. Our citizen-led Water Advisory Committee trimmed $26 million from the project to reduce costs to $114 million; recommended a rate structure that will ensure increased conservation; and confirmed the design, construction and operation strategies for cost reduction. The committee voted overwhelmingly to recommend the project as the best strategy for long-term fiscal and environmental sustainability.
As is laudable and common in Davis, direct democracy will rule the day. This enormous decision is now in the hands of voters. Yes on Measure I is our chance to diversify our water holdings and provide clean water reliably and securely for current residents and future generations.