Water is on the minds of most Californians. San Juan Capistrano is no exception, as residents remain concerned about the reliability and cost of water.
Here are some of my insights into factors that impact the reliability and cost of water service.
We have just finished a week with no water being imported due to scheduled maintenance work by the Metropolitan Water District of Orange County. I have attended many meetings with water agencies in Orange County, which have discussed the reliability of imported water. Most of those meetings have stressed that municipalities should not be totally dependent upon imported water, if at all possible.
The water being imported through the delta is particularly vulnerable as a result of possible earthquakes, flooding, salt-water intrusion as the oceans rise and environmental factors (Delta Smelt).
This and previous City Councils have been concerned with providing a reliable source of safe drinking water to the residents. Thus the city decided years ago to become less dependent upon imported water.
This was through a combination of efforts, including the Groundwater Recovery Plant (GWRP) and more wells and additional storage in case there was an interruption of imported water, tiered water rates to encourage conservation, an emphasis on reducing the amount of water used through education and use of recycled water.
The Groundwater Recovery Plant has been plagued with a number of problems which we are well on the way to solving. There was a problem in the initial design of the plant and this was compounded when and the major wells were shut down and the GWRP was operated at a reduced capacity.
We operate the GWRP on a lease basis and those payments continue at the same rate regardless of how much water is being produced by the plant. Most of the design defects have been resolved, filters have been installed to remove the MTBE, additional wells have been drilled and the plant is now operating at a higher capacity. We expect it to be operating at full capacity (5.2 Million Gallons per Day (MGD)) by this summer.
The greater the output of the plant then the lower the cost of production. The cost of water from the plant is currently higher than that of imported water, but that is the price we are currently paying for increased reliability. As a footnote, the cost of imported water will increase 7.5 percent next year and 5 percent in the following year. Thus it is possible that at some point the cost of imported water and water from the plant will be much nearer in cost.
One thing not thought of often are the pumping and storage facilities needed in case of an interruption of water to the city to provide sufficient water at high enough pressure and flow to fight fires. Those facilities were paid for mostly through bond sales and the payment for those facilities is part of your monthly water bill.
The annual debt (principle and interest) is more than $2 million per year. Those payments must be made whether you use a drop or water or not. The monthly cost to each ratepayer is about $15. We have recently acquired an interest in the Upper Chiquita Reservoir, as another source of water should there be an interruption from outside sources. Some water from this source was used during our recent outage.
We are also working on other means of increasing the reliability of the system. We are working on providing a back-up power supply to the Groundwater Recovery Plant should our power sources be interrupted. Some residents require pumps to provide water to them, as gravity feed is not adequate in parts of the city. We have the pumps, but we do not in all cases have an alternate source of electricity.
An area not talked about much because it is not very exciting is putting aside money to fund replacement of pipes, pumps, motors, reservoirs, etc. Those costs must also be borne by the ratepayer if the system is to remain reliable into the future.
The city has invested money in an ocean desalination project. The present outlook for it is that the cost of water from desalination is many times more expensive than from our ground water recovery plant, and the present concept may not even be financially sound. However, as part of that project a capacity study of the San Juan Basin is being conducted. This should provide some assurance that we will continue to be able to pump groundwater to the GWRP.
Thus the cost of water to the business and homeowner is just not the cost of buying or producing safe, clean water but also the cost of backup systems, alternate systems and replacement costs so that your supply of water will not be interrupted today or in the future.
On a personal note; I have verified that my home has low-flow toilets, I check my lawn watering system for leaks on a frequent basis, and I am replacing my backyard lawn with native plants.
This letter is of my own creation and does not necessarily reflect the views of the other members of the City Council.