Another View: The great Placer County sewer debate

Another View
By: Bob Snyder, guest columnist
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First let’s agree on this — it’s our wastewater, not the county’s or the city’s, it belongs to you and to me. And we each have a responsibility not to foul the water supplies of folks who live downstream of us, just as we expect those upstream to do the same. As a community we benefit greatly from the economies of scale of a community wastewater system. It’s a lot simpler and lot less costly to treat it all in one place than it is for every family to treat its sewage individually. In Auburn, like most foothill communities, treated sewage must be discharged to local creeks. So because our wastewater sometimes is the creek, it has to be treated to a very high standard to protect the health of our community and those downstream. Remember, once our treated sewage leaves Auburn, some of it eventually ends up in someone’s iced tea glass. Thousands of chemicals enter our sewers each day. Our wastewater plants have to reduce about 165 of the most dangerous to levels measured in parts per million, 24 hours a day every day of the year. With very little dilution in the creeks and an ever changing soup coming into the plant, this is very difficult to do consistently. Miss the mark and the state has mandatory fines of $3,000 per day per violation, and these fines are paid by you and me. About 15 years ago, the notion that we could pipe the sewage to a centralized modern plant in Lincoln was put forward by smart public officials. It would eliminate the continuous stream discharges that plague our small sewage treatment plants, move the water to a place where it could be reclaimed and reused, and offer sewer rates that benefit from the economies of scale of operating one plant instead of three. Lincoln residents pay only 60 percent of what we pay for operation and maintenance! So a joint powers authority was created to analyze the potential to regionalize all seven small treatment plants around the area, including Colfax. Then when Lincoln was building its wastewater infrastructure about seven years ago, Placer County and Auburn asked Lincoln to oversize the main trunk sewer along Highway 193 and aspects of the plant itself to reduce the cost to accommodate future sewage flows from Auburn. That was good planning on the county and Auburn’s part! The county took the lead and in 2007 cost estimates were finally completed and they were outrageously expensive. Being a member of the authority at that time and a civil engineer, I sat in on some of the technical meetings that discussed the cost estimate factors. In summary, I would say that the public works officials responsible for the estimates made every effort to ensure the numbers were high enough that the project could not possibly ever go over budget. There was contingency upon contingency upon contingency. When these numbers were made public, just about everyone assumed the regional idea was dead. However, the cost estimate was so crazy that some officials wanted another look with an eye toward realism. It should be noted that the first estimate was done just before the housing boom collapsed. Construction prices were sky-high and escalating. After the crash it was clear that the project could be built at much lower costs, so a new estimate was done. This estimate was better but still prepared to ensure that no public official could possibly be embarrassed by a cost overrun. Realism again was absent. Now let’s fast forward to today. The City of Lincoln has grown tired of all these crazy cost estimates and hand-wringing over highly improbable cost over runs and has put forward a plan based on real contractor numbers that guarantees the project cost (with some limits). Their guaranteed cost is virtually the same as the county’s very aggressive cost estimate to rebuild the existing Sewage Maintenance District No. 1 plant. And over time, the regional project keeps our rates lower. So this would now appear to be an easy decision. It’s exactly why the JPA was created 15 years ago, to find economies of scale that save the ratepayers’ money and get treated sewage out of the creeks. Lower rates for ratepayers and better for the local environment. But that logic and all that ratepayer benefit may not prevail because at this point in time the county staff’s recommendation is to upgrade the Sewage Maintenance District No. 1 plant, maintain the status quo and kill the regional solution. I hope the Board of Supervisors looks very hard at the staff’s recommendation, because it makes little sense in my estimation. As the executive officer of the Regional Water Board recently told the JPA board so plainly, the decision to regionalize isn’t about political self interest or serving county staff, it’s about serving the ratepayers. It’s clearly in the best interest of the ratepayers to regionalize now, especially during this window when financing, construction and material costs are at lifetime lows. Sure, county staff is resistant to change, but miss this opportunity now and the ratepayers will certainly want to know why the decision was made to make them pay more to discharge our sewage into seasonal creeks. Bob Snyder is a city of Auburn planning commissioner.