City Pushes for Million Dollar Water / Sewer Lines at Riding Park

At the March 21, 2017 City Council meeting, city staff recommended that the council approve spending more than $1 million to install recycled water and sewer lines at the publicly owned Riding Park.

The price of installation pales in comparison to the cost of purchasing recycled water year after year. The difference in cost is $1,567 per acre foot for recycled water compared to $150 to $289 per acre foot* for non-potable well water. City staff estimates Riding Park watering needs at up to 167 acre feet per year. At current rates, recycled water would cost the taxpayers from $156,700 to $267,000 per year, compared to well water which would cost an estimated $51,000 per year.

Less expensive water option available

An adjoining property owner currently provides non-potable well water to Blenheim Facilities Management, the private company that manages and uses the publicly owned Riding Park. The private well on the neighboring property has irrigated the Riding Park continuously for decades, including in times of drought. Ironically, Blenheim’s owner sold the adjoining property with the well and water rights to its current owner.

The current well owner extended an offer to the city to continue purchasing water for the Riding Park for a flat rate of $3,000 per month, after paying a one-time fee of $35,000. During discussion of this issue at the council meeting, City Manager Ben Siegel dismissed the option, stating that the private well water could be discontinued with a 90-day notice. However, Councilmember Patterson elicited the admission from Siegel that he had never spoken with the well owner whereas Patterson stated that she had communicated with the well owner. She stated that his intent is to continue to provide water to the Riding Park. In fact, the well owner, Jeffrey Cotton, said it was the city that added the 90-day termination language, not him. According to Patterson, Cotton also stated his willingness to adjust the water agreement with terms that the city would be more comfortable with.

City has rights to construct a well

Yet another option exists which has the potential of saving hundreds of thousands of dollars per year in watering costs.

The purchase agreement for the open space property on which the Riding Park is located grants the city the right to construct a well, from which the city is then allowed to draw 300 gallons of (non-potable) water per minute. After initial installation, the only on-going costs would be for electricity (for the pump system) and maintenance.

This option was dismissed based on staff’s assertion that irrigating the Riding Park requires 400 gallons per minute. The stated need for 400 gallons per minute was never adequately explained, and is questionable when compared to the golf course. The golf course has approximately 150 acres of turf compared to the Riding Park’s 22 acres, yet uses far less water than what the city claims is needed for the Riding Park. The golf course meets their irrigation needs by drawing well water into a holding pond, then pumping it to an automatic watering system. This allows them to water in “zones” overnight. 

Even if the city demonstrated the actual need for water pressure at 400 gallons per minute, they have the ability to build a pond and pump system. This system could be constructed at a relatively reasonable cost when compared to the expense of purchasing recycled water at a far higher rate, year after year. 

City’s claims about well costs questionable

One of the reasons given for dismissing the option to construct a well is the cost. Staff claims that the cost to locate, drill and test a well on the Riding Park/open space property is $890,000. We checked with a local company and based on the location, the estimated cost is less than $250,000 including the cost of the well and pump system. Even if the city had to construct a holding pond/reservoir to draw water in the volumes they claim are needed, the total estimated cost still comes nowhere near $890,000.

Staff also claims that the timeline to sink the well and test it would be approximately two years due to the need for an Environmental Impact Report (“EIR”) based on the well’s proximity to the creek and protected habitat. Even if the city determined that an EIR was required however, water could be purchased from the Cotton well for $3,000 per month in the interim. The estimated savings could be close to a half million dollars over the two-year period.

Another reason staff gave for not pursuing the well option is that “we don’t know if the same geological conditions exist as at the Cotton well.” However, according to San Juan Basin Authority maps, water rises to its highest level (about 50 feet below the surface) near Antonio and Ortega. Given the Riding Park’s proximity to the creek and the San Juan basin which runs under the property, chances are there is indeed a water source in that location, closer to the surface. 

Expenditure “not properly presented or approved”

It is unclear why city administration would push for costly recycled water. Councilmember Pam Patterson questions the underhanded way in which this item was pushed through city channels. She pointed out that after only three weeks on the job, it was City Manager Ben Siegel who placed the costly recycled water item on the City Council Priority list last year, not a council member as is typically done. In fact, none of the council members at the time indicated it was a priority for them.

Patterson also expressed concern that the costly recycled water item had never been presented and voted on as a separate item. Therefore, neither the council nor the public had an opportunity to question or weigh in on the cost or necessity. This happened, Patterson said, because it was one item on a long list of Capital Improvement Project budget items. “It was included in a ‘block’ of about 20 budget items for approval,” Patterson said. “It was not properly presented to us; there were no reports or presentations… and it was never properly approved.” Patterson added that she believes the $1 million+ expenditure is “… irresponsible with respect to the monies that our residents entrust us with.”
 In response, Councilman Derek Reeve, who supports the expenditure, called Patterson “ignorant” for questioning the expense, stating that the cost of the recycled water line was on council agendas twice. However, City Manager Siegel ultimately admitted that the proposed expenditure was only on a list of budget items to be approved, i.e.; it was never approved as a separate item. Councilman Brian Maryott asked, “I’m curious how this water line was ratified by the council; was it a budget item or a separate item for consideration?” The city manager responded that it was part of the [Capital Improvement Projects] budget workshop in May 2016, and then was on the budget list at a later date.

Maryott also asked about the cost of purchasing recycled water versus well water, and whether the cost would come down over time. Staff responded that the cost “… should come down in about 20 years.” However, staff was likely referring to the cost of the capital improvements (the installation costs), not the actual cost to purchase the recycled water. It is highly unlikely that recycled water will decrease in cost over the years. 

Mayor Kerry Ferguson asked staff whether 300 gallons per minute was sufficient to water the Riding Park. Staff responded, “… based on our calculations, it would take about 400 gallons per minute…” She asked no follow up questions about how this figure was arrived at or whether other, less expensive options exist.

Despite the unanswered questions and concerns expressed by Patterson about the need and cost, Council members Ferguson, Farias, Maryott and Reeve voted to approve the recycled water line. This obligates SJC taxpayers to millions more for property that was purchased as open space, but which instead mostly generates revenue for a private business. Meanwhile, fields at other city parks such as the Sports Park continue to require much-needed repair and maintenance.

 Council member Patterson said she would like to re-visit this item on a future city council agenda, given the additional information (such as the Cotton well offer) that was not presented to the council prior to this decision being made. 

Do you support spending $1+ million on installing recycled water and sewer lines to the Riding Park? Do you support purchasing recycled water over well water? The CCS wants to hear from you! Email us at: Your privacy is respected; we will not print your name without your permission.

1 comment:

Kerry Schultz said...

Good step toward installing water and sewer lines at the publicly owned Riding Park. This Program will help people who have water accessing problem in public places. You have described this topic beautifully.

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