At the San Juan Bautista City Council meeting on July 14, City Manager Don Reynolds presented a report on possible solutions for water and waste treatment plant issues. For the first time in 12 years, San Juan is nearing a resolution, though long delays in approaching the problem have driven up costs.
The 80-page Potable Water Source Control and Wastewater Treatment Plant Improvements report was prepared by Stantec Consulting Services, which has 22 locations in California and 400 worldwide. The city commissioned Stantec to look at the three main water problems San Juan has fought for two years: hard water coming from city wells that occasionally exceeded nitrate standards, home water softeners which added massive amounts of chlorides and sodium to wastewater, and an aging wastewater treatment plant the city had outgrown.
Prior to Reynolds, four city managers spanning 12 years had effectively kicked the problem down the road, offering a non-functioning and decaying pellet plant as a solution they had no ability or budget to implement.
A surprise Environmental Protection Agency inspection of the plant in June 2019 resulted in a “letter of concern” followed by a letter from the California State Water Resources Control Board detailing violations and fines. While the letter is considered confidential by both the city and the water board, BenitoLink established that the amount owed by the city in fines and penalties exceeds $822,000.
As the city hit this critical juncture, Reynolds was just assuming his position as city manager, taking the office on July 2, 2019. He first became aware of the complexities of the problems when he applied for the job.
“I happened to know the former city engineer here, Pat Dobbins,” Reynolds said. “I called him and said ‘Hey, I have an interview’ and Pat said ‘We have to have lunch.”
The two discussed a 2018 report called “Consequence of Failure Analysis” produced for the city by Dudek, a firm specializing in community infrastructure. That was around the time the city started removing sludge from the wastewater treatment ponds, a major source of the coliform bacteria violations. Reynolds said Dobbins told him, “This is your biggest issue in San Juan.”
When Reynolds interviewed for the job, he was asked what his first 100-day report would look like. He replied that resolving the water problems was the highest priority; that he thought the city did an excellent job in representing its history, but what he had learned from the failure analysis report was “the other side of the coin.”
After Reynolds took office, sludge removal continued, finally getting the bacteria counts down below violation level by Oct. 25, 2019. But all the issues that the EPA and water board had concerns about still existed.
The Potable Water Source Control and Wastewater Treatment Plant Improvements report was commissioned to address the problems. Within the report are three solutions for potable water coming into the city and three solutions for wastewater treatment. San Juan Bautista must now decide on which solutions to implement. Every solution depends on reducing salt levels in the water. That begins and ends with having the city reduce the hardness of its water, which would allow residents to get rid of water softeners at home.
There are three solutions the city is considering. Two of them—“On-Site Wastewater Treatment Plant Upgrades and Off-Site Salinity Control” and “Regionalization with Hollister Wastewater Treatment Plan and Off-Site Salinity Control”—are aimed at different ways of softening the water by using one of three approaches.
One approach is to rehabilitate the pellet plant to soften the water, which would work without discharging salt into the system. The city would then set up an incentive program to buy back any water softeners installed in the city. It has an estimated life cycle cost of $9,840,000.
The second approach is to replace all current salt-based softeners in the city with new cartridge water softeners. This type of softener collects the salt without discharging it, allowing it to be collected and then discharged off-site. It has an estimated life cycle cost of $8,690,000.
The third approach is to import already treated water from Hollister’s West Hills Water Treatment Plant. It has an estimated life cycle cost of $10,193,000.
With the on-site plan, the city would dispose of discharged wastewater through the existing wastewater treatment plant. In the “Regionalization” plan, the discharged wastewater would be sent to the Hollister West Hills plant.
The third possible plan involves replacing the existing water treatment system with one that would use reverse osmosis or electrodialysis reversal to remove salt.
The final recommendation of the consultants is to add an industrial pretreatment program to reduce salt, upgrade the existing wastewater treatment plant with a new membrane bioreactor treatment process, and install a water line from the West Hills plant in Hollister to San Juan Bautista.
The project cost estimate is $18,515,000, broken down into easement acquisition ($15,000), the water softener buyback program ($193,000), environmental reports ($60,000), engineering services ($3,617,000), and construction costs ($13,300,000). There is also $1,330,000 in contingency costs.
The solution, however, is still under consideration.
“I came from a spoiled upbringing,” Reynolds said, “and I always want the most expensive solution because I think it will end up working best and lasting longest. But that does not always mean that is the one we can afford to do.”
The city is currently in discussion with Hollister to find out what they would charge for the hookups needed to bring the water to San Juan Bautista and the per-gallon costs. Also being discussed is whether it would be cheaper for Hollister to handle the city’s wastewater rather than upgrading the current plant in San Juan Bautista.
Reynolds is working with the United States Department of Agriculture on getting a grant equal to 45% of the total costs, which would leave the city needing to borrow $10,175,200. He is also working to qualify the project for special loan terms based on San Juan Bautista’s state status as a “disadvantaged city,” which would allow for a 40-year loan at 1.375% interest. All fines accrued so far by the city would be rolled into the solution. Other federal agencies have loan and grant programs that may come into play based on issues like the city’s unemployment rate.
Down the line, the city plans to tackle other problems with the water, such as flushing and replacing old pipes to improve overall water quality. But for now, the long saga of water violations may finally be coming to a close.
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