The State Worker

Bottled water tab at a California prison has hit $46,000 a month

California's corrections department is spending $46,000 a month to buy bottled water for inmates and staff at a prison in Tracy.
California's corrections department is spending $46,000 a month to buy bottled water for inmates and staff at a prison in Tracy. AP

California's corrections department is spending $46,000 a month to buy bottled water for inmates and staff at a prison in Tracy where it opened a state-of-the-art water treatment plant eight years ago.

Deuel Vocational Institution draws water from brackish wells on its grounds and runs it through a two-step treatment process before providing it to 2,300 inmates and 1,000 employees for drinking or for showers.

News reports on the 2010 unveiling of a $32 million water treatment plant characterized the department as providing the cleanest, best water in the state to prison inmates.

But a key component of the high-tech plant did not work as intended. Its brine concentrator, which brings the water up to drinking standards, is unreliable and difficult to fix.

When it’s down, salts and metals can accumulate to such a level that the prison violates state standards for wastewater discharge.

The new state budget includes $2 million for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation to begin designing a brine concentration system. The total cost of the project is estimated to be $32 million, according to the department’s budget request.

If all goes as planned, the department projects it’ll be up and running by 2021.

In the meantime, the department must provide bottled water to inmates and staff whenever the brine concentration system is down to comply with an order from the Central Valley Regional Water Control Board. It’s been offline most of the time since October, and the department has spent $417,000 on bottled water since then.

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Steve Crouch, director of public employees for the union that represents maintenance workers at the prison, called bottled water and the problems with the water plant a “debacle” that could have been resolved by keeping more parts on hand to repair the system.

Bill Sessa, a spokesman for the corrections department, said the new system to replace the brine concentrator should be easier to operate and repair. The current one relies on parts from a foreign supplier, and the prison does not have a back-up system if it needs repair.

“It’s more simple to operate. It’s a better fit technologically for the way the rest of the plant operates,” he said.

The Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board has issued a series of citations against the department because of water discharge issues at the prison since 2014. The department paid a $2.3 million penalty last year to resolve the citations, with $1.2 million going to the water board and $1.1 million going to a nonprofit organization that is carrying out some water quality improvement projects in the San Joaquin Valley.

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