Another View: Regional plan best way to address wastewater options

Another View
By: Robert M. Weygandt, guest columnist
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Placer County expects to have a comprehensive regional plan in place soon to bring its North Auburn wastewater treatment system into compliance with federal and state standards without placing an undue burden on ratepayers while concurrently reducing sewer rates. The plan also would allow the city of Auburn to solve its long-term sewage treatment needs while protecting city residents from major rate hikes. Both the county and city operate small, aging sewage treatment plants that over time face the prospect of major upgrades to comply with increasingly stringent federal and state standards. Funding the needed improvements is a daunting challenge, a fact that many sewer and water districts throughout California and the nation are facing. Placer County has been working with the cities of Lincoln and Auburn for more than 10 years on one cornerstone of the plan: building a regional system that would convey wastewater from Auburn and North Auburn to the city of Lincoln’s treatment plant, a modern facility that meets federal and state standards and has room to expand. The Board of Supervisors took a critical step in that direction on Dec. 6 when it voted to proceed with the regional approach and to make upgrading the existing North Auburn treatment plant a fall-back option in case the regional option is not feasible. The existing plant serves North Auburn, Bowman, Christian Valley and Applegate. I strongly support the regional approach, and remain concerned that investing almost $60 million to upgrade the existing plant would eliminate the opportunity to build the regional project for at least 30 to 50 years. The cost of either option will be too significant and challenging to be borne by ratepayers alone. The second cornerstone of the plan is an innovative financing strategy that will allow the regional project to be built without large rate hikes. The key is helping finance the project with part of Placer County’s revenue from the Middle Fork American River Hydroelectric Project (MFP), a system of dams and waterways built in the 1960s to provide the county with a reliable water supply and generate electricity. On Feb. 28, I will ask my board colleagues to commit a small percentage of the county’s future MFP revenue. In the short term, this plan offers the opportunity to reduce rates for customers currently served by the North Auburn plant and to stabilize rates paid by city of Auburn residents. In the long term, history predicts that rates will rise more slowly with the regional approach because of economies of scale from operating one treatment plant, rather than separate plants in North Auburn, Auburn and Lincoln. Placer County and the Placer County Water Agency are in the process of obtaining a new 50-year license for the MFP from the federal government. After a power contract with Pacific Gas & Electric Co. expires in 2013, the county and PCWA will generate revenue through sales of electrical power. Beginning in 2015, any revenue not needed for operating expenses, debt payments or reserves will be distributed to the county and PCWA. The proposal to use MFP funds would eliminate a potential drawback of the regional system: up-front construction costs are higher than the plant-upgrade option because of the need to construct a pipeline from Auburn to Lincoln. Advantages of the regional approach include: Sending wastewater from Auburn and North Auburn by pipeline to Lincoln will reduce the potential for accidental discharges of untreated wastes or harmful chemicals into small streams between Auburn and Lincoln; Lincoln’s treatment plant has the best performance record in Placer County and plenty of room for expansion; The regional system will help protect customers from dramatic rate increases in the future, because improvement costs will be shared by a larger customer base; Building the regional system will allow local agencies to recoup investments already made in the project; and The regional project will make more treated wastewater available for use by West Placer farmers and cities. I applaud the hard work and collaboration of the stakeholders working to shape this regional solution. There are details still to be worked out, but I am convinced the plan is realistic, cost-effective and the best option for solving the region’s long-term wastewater treatment needs. Robert M. Weygandt is a member of the Placer County Board of Supervisors, representing District 2.