Sacramento regional sewer district breaks ground on county’s biggest public works project

An array of influential federal, state and local leaders gathered on a patch of dirt at a sewage plant in Elk Grove on Thursday to break ground on the biggest public works project in Sacramento County history.

Officials kicked off a $2 billion expansion of the Sacramento Regional Wastewater Treatment Plant, which serves more than 416,000 homes and businesses in Sacramento County and West Sacramento. After years of litigation and resistance by local agencies over the cost and requirements imposed by state regulators, speakers hailed the start of construction on a massive upgrade at the facility that will produce cleaner water for discharge into the Sacramento River.

“The road to this moment in time has been long and winding, and it hasn’t been without its challenges,” said Citrus Heights Vice Mayor Jeannie Bruins, board chairwoman of the Sacramento Regional County Sanitation District, which operates the treatment plant. Today, “we put the challenges behind us and move ahead.”

Bruins welcomed dozens of elected leaders, regulators and sanitation district staff to the ceremony on the sprawling grounds around the treatment plant, which processes wastewater produced by 1.4 million people in the region. Speakers included U.S. Reps. Doris Matsui, John Garamendi and Ami Bera; state Assembly members Kevin McCarty and Ken Cooley; and administrators from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, State Water Resources Control Board and Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board.

Construction at the treatment plant, dubbed the EchoWater Project, is expected to be completed in 2023. Crews will add layers of filtering and disinfection to remove ammonia and nitrates and to eliminate more pathogens that can sicken people before the wastewater is discharged into the Sacramento River.

The improvements will elevate the quality of treated water to “tertiary” status, the highest level under state law. Besides protecting the environment, the cleaner flows could be recycled for use in watering lawns, irrigating crops and cooling power plants, sanitation officials said.

The plant upgrades will be financed by a $1.6 billion, low-interest loan from the state’s Clean Water Revolving Fund. But the full, $2 billion price tag for the project eventually will be footed by ratepayers through gradual increases in monthly sewer rates, officials said.

The current average monthly bill of $29 for a single-family home is set to increase to $32 in July and to $35 next year, district engineer Prabhakar Somavarapu said. Although the sanitation district board, which is made up of elected officials throughout the Sacramento region, has not yet considered rates beyond 2016, monthly bills for customers could increase to $39 before the project is completed, he said.

But estimates of even higher monthly bills have been revised downward, Somavarapu said. Money is being saved by new technology that has reduced the cost of cleaning water and by settling previous lawsuits that had been filed against state regulators who first ordered the district in 2010 to do a better job of cleaning wastewater.

In addition, regulators said the low-interest loan provided by the state to finance work will save ratepayers $500 million.

Robert D. Dávila: (916) 321-1077, @Bob_Davila