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State mandates raise in Portola sewer costs

Diana Jorgenson
Portola Editor
1/27/2010

  The Portola City Council reviewed new requirements in its wastewater discharge permit at its Jan. 13 meeting and found that meeting these requirements will put the sewer fund into a negative balance situation for the first time.

  The permit is granted by the Regional Water Quality Control Board and allows the city to discharge wastewater into the Feather River for a brief period every spring. The permit, which lasts for five years, was originally granted last April, but Public Works Director Todd Roberts and Sauers Engineering, contracted by the city to help with the sewer system management plan, objected to some of the many new requirements.

  Roberts introduced the presentation by saying the cost of meeting the permit was going to be astronomical, but thanks to Karen Nelson of Sauers Engineering, they could reduce the cost, which remained substantial.

  “We did get a bunch of stuff that had been in the permit removed. It involved fighting (the water board) and standing our ground, but we did it and it saved the city a lot of money,” said Roberts.

  Nelson and Dean Marsh, her partner at Sauers Engineering, and Roberts challenged several of the items because they felt they didn’t apply to the city’s system and they cost a lot of money. On other issues, Nelson felt they were the wrong way to approach some things.

  “They (water board staff) really worked with us. They came to your town and we walked them through the site. We demonstrated what some of the issues were: they have to apply the law to your system,” Nelson said.

  Water board staff subsequently relieved the city from a number of studies and the regional board approved the final permit last October.

  Nelson gave a brief overview of the city’s sewer system, “It’s a wastewater pond system—very low technology. It’s been there a long time, but is extremely cost effective over anything else that’s out there.

  “So, to the extent that we can keep it running and keep it in compliance with the law, I believe it will save you millions of dollars over going to a more sophisticated system. It’s very reliable, economical, stable; (has) very little energy consumption and requires minimal operator attention relative to other systems.”

  Nelson felt she would know how well the system would weather the storm of the new requirements after it had gone through its discharge season this spring.

  She also pointed out city staff had already changed many of their ways of discharge to evaporate more and by using spray irrigation. Reducing the amount of discharge reduces the potential for violation Nelson pointed out.

  Sewer ponds discharge into the Feather River whenever they get overfull, either in winter or spring, but must adhere to a strict set of guidelines in doing so.

  Like other sewer systems and municipalities across the state, Portola is also meeting deadlines for the sewer system management plan, mandated by the state through the regional water board.

  The city council has already approved the goals and organization portions of the management plan and has an Overflow Emergency Response Plan in place.

  Nelson outlined the next portions of the plan, with deadlines prior to the end of the city’s fiscal year in July, and presented cost estimates for Sauers Engineering’s time in preparing them.

  The first task outlined requires the city to demonstrate through sewer ordinances and sewer contracts that the city possesses legal authority over the sewer. The Sauers Engineering proposal pointed out that task does not require a licensed engineer so the work could be completed by city staff, if desired.

  Other work needing completion by Feb. 2 includes the operations and maintenance program, a comprehensive document that maps the collection system, documents preventive maintenance program, develops replacement plans, outlines operator training programs and inventories equipment.

  Finally, the city must implement a fats, oils and grease control program, which includes public outreach as well as grease interceptors on food service connections to the sewer.

  The toxics reduction evaluation work plan must be in place by April 8, and is the guiding document if, during the life of the permit, toxicity testing falls out of compliance.

  The mixing zone dilution study must occur this spring during the discharge period, which is usually brief. Injected dye traces the dilution patterns of the effluent during discharge into the river.

  The work plan and schedule for completing the best practicable treatment or control report is also due April 8. The two- or three-year project will entail a comprehensive technical evaluation of each system element.

  Sauers must also complete a study of discharge elimination during periods of high electrical conductivity in the Feather River and a groundwater monitoring work plan.

  The groundwater monitoring work plan will include selected locations for the installation of shallow monitoring wells, as well as look into the feasibility of using one or more Union Pacific groundwater monitoring wells as a source of up-gradient information. Nelson estimated the need for one to two wells up gradient and three down-gradient wells.

  Nelson also foresaw the need for salinity studies in the future, which are being required throughout the state. The work required of Sauers Engineering to fulfill state requirements due before the end of the current fiscal year totaled $74,000, with another estimated $15,000 for drilling wells.

  Finance Officer Susan Scarlett asked if the council wanted to know how much money was currently in the sewer fund. City Manager Jim Murphy commented he didn’t think the state cared if the city had the money, but council members did.

  Scarlett reported there was $36,000 in undesignated funds available.

   Murphy added, “The reason this is so important is because this is the first time we will have a negative balance in the sewer fund.

  “When we do next year’s budget, it equates to a potential rate increase to the residents—and we haven’t even started to talk about Lake Davis treatment plant costs yet, but it equates to a pretty significant rate increase.”

  Roberts attributed the increased costs to environmentalist group California Sport Fishing Alliance monitoring the regional water board to make sure the letter of the law was fulfilled and to limit the board’s ability to make individual exceptions.

  Mayor John Larrieu wanted to know if the city could make up the difference from the General Fund. Murphy said no, that sewer, water and solid waste were all enterprise funds and were fee-based.

  Scarlett said she would talk to city engineer Dan Bastian to see if any of the elements would qualify for money from the sewer’s capital fund, but knew that studies were not eligible.

  Murphy commented, “When you’ve got 1,100 users and you’re asking $74,000…”

  Nelson said Roberts had used that argument with the board.

  “You’re taking money away from improvements to the wastewater treatment plant. You won’t be able to do any sewer line improvements that you should be doing because you’re paying for studies that, by and large, aren’t improving water quality to the river,” she said.

  Murphy said the city of Colfax, with a smaller customer base than Portola, had switched from a pond system to a treatment plant and it had cost them $10 million.

  Citizen Bob Morton wanted to know why the ponds were even allowed so close to the river when the landfill, which was a considerable distance away, was closed because of leaching to the river.

  Nelson explained that dumps were quite another matter and heavy metals were at issue; extreme toxins like battery acid and Freon don’t come out in any natural process.

  “The wastewater at your treatment plant is essentially what your people flush down the toilet and it does biodegrade naturally,” she said.

  Roberts added it was treated as well, “It’s all organic.”

  There were several guesses—ranging from the ‘50s to the ‘70s—as to when the ponds were originally placed there, but no one knew for certain.

  Nelson summarized the situation, “For cities like yours that don’t have a lot of industrial discharge, they (ponds) really do a pretty good job across the board. We can do things to even improve that, things that are still fairly passive and low tech.”

            “And some day,” Murphy concluded, “we can talk about the $700,000 deficit in the solid waste fund because of the forced closure of the landfill, which is exactly the same issue that we’re talking about here.”

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