BL Special Report

BL Special Report: Why San Juan Bautista’s ‘million-dollar’ water fix was never implemented

The ill-fated ‘pellet plant’ was supposed to provide the city with abundant soft water.

This is the second in a series on San Juan Bautista’s water issues. Read Part One here.

San Juan Bautista faced a problem: the water from the city’s main well was too hard to use without creating pollution down through the discharge system. And the city’s second well was too full of nitrates to be safely put online.

In a previous plan, the city considered San Felipe water coming directly from the San Luis Reservoir, which would require a treatment plant to process it.

In 2008, the city took a different tack: purchasing and installing a water softening system known as a “pellet plant.” City Councilman John Freeman put the price of the plant at $750,000 with a $1 million installation cost. This pellet plant became central to San Juan’s plan to solve its years-long water issues.  

Pellet plants contain a tank, referred to as a reactor. Water is fed into it, along with sand and a caustic, like lime. Calcium carbonate is removed from the water, pressed into pellets and removed from the bottom of the reactor. 

Photo by Robert Eliason.
Photo by Robert Eliason.

At the time San Juan bought the pellet plant, the city only had two wells to draw from: City Well #1 and City Well #2. Another well, City Well #3, was too high in nitrates and eventually capped off. 

Lloyd Bracewell, of Bracewell Engineering, oversaw the city’s water for 30 years. In 2018, he terminated his contract over a disagreement with the city regarding its wastewater treatment plant. He said the pellet plant was limited as to the sources from which it could process water. 

“It will only work with water from Well 2,” Bracewell said. “The chemistry of Well 5 or Well 6 is not as conducive to using the pellet plant.”

Engineering softer water

If the pellet plant were to become operational, it would allow the residents to remove their water softeners and turn them in for a cash rebate of between $1,000 and $2,000, according to a July 2018 letter from then-city manager Michaele LaForge. Removing the water softeners could eliminate the problem of excess sodium and chlorides that are injected into the system as waste. As a bonus, the pellets produced could possibly be sold for industrial use.

Another plus to the system is that while the pellet plant was designed to work with well water, another module could be added to process imported water from the San Felipe line, dramatically increasing the amount of softer water available to the city.

George Dias, who served on the San Juan Bautista City Council from 2004-08, described the efforts to fund the water projects during and immediately after his term.

“We negotiated with the water district but could not come to an agreement,” Dias said. “We had a contract, but there were four or five things that we could not work with and the water district would not bend at all.”

Photo by Robert Eliason.
Photo by Robert Eliason.

The city was able to get its own financing, but ended up losing a federal grant in 2007, according to Freeman.

“Some local residents did not want the city to get the loan, so they kept calling the feds, which triggered an audit,” Dias said. “The city played games with the auditor and we lost the grant. That put us up the creek and we had to finance it ourselves.”

When the city purchased the pellet plant in 2008, it installed the lines needed to bring water from the wells to the plant and then into the city for use. To save on storage costs, the pellet plant was eventually brought to the site intended for its installation, near City Well #2 at the corner of OId San Juan Hollister and Mission Vineyard roads, where it sits today.

‘Won’t work’

Installation was delayed while the city dealt with other water and sewage expenses.

“We had to put in a purple pipe designated for recycled water,” Dias said. “That wasn’t part of the original plan. Then we had to put in sewer lines at Washington and Franklin streets. That was expensive and not covered in the plan.” 

When that work was done, San Juan found itself out of money for the pellet plant.

Another issue concerned the new San Juan Bautista Reservoir, located in the hills above the city. Water from the wells is pumped for use through the city first and the excess is sent to the reservoir. When the reservoir is full, the wells shut down and water flows from the reservoir to the city.

San Juan Bautista's new reservoir. Photo by Robert Eliason.
San Juan Bautista’s new reservoir. Photo by Robert Eliason.

The new reservoir was larger and higher up the hill than the previous one. The pressure needed to get water to the new reservoir required construction of a lift and reduction station, which would help push the water going up to the reservoir and regulate the water coming down.

This station was not part of the original plan and created another unbudgeted expense.

“We are in a construction meeting and Lloyd Bracewell is sitting in a corner with his arms crossed,” Dias said, “And the ‘schoolboys’ are talking a hundred miles an hour about what they planned. Pretty soon they said ‘Lloyd, you’re pretty quiet’ and Lloyd said ‘Yep . . . not gonna work.’ They said ‘What do you mean?’ He said ‘To fill that tank on the top of the hill we are going to have to boost the pressure on all three pumps and we are going to have to boost it so high it would blow the water system out of town.’ The schoolboys did some recalculating and then they looked at us and said ‘won’t work.’”

San Juan Bautista's lift and reduction station. Photo by Robert Eliason
San Juan Bautista’s lift and reduction station. Photo by Robert Eliason

Council pulls the plug

The city initially sought more funding to finish the installation of the pellet plant during Dias’ term, but changes to the council brought by the 2008 election ended the project.

“We had another set of plans ready to get the plant installed, but the next city council tore the loan application up and fired the consultant,” Dias said. “It’s been dead ever since.”

According to Freeman, the city ran out of funds to install the plant in 2009.

Initially, the disassembled pellet plant was covered in nylon tarps to protect it from the elements. But rain, wind and sun have long since shredded the tarps. The pellet plant lies unprotected in a field surrounded by a chain-link fence. Through the fence, broken bags of sand and lime are spilling onto the ground, surrounded by rusted and decaying machinery.

“There sits a million dollars in waste,” Dias said. “Take it to the scrapyard. It’s gone.”

Today, it would take a considerable amount of money to repair the pellet plant. Freeman compared it to rebuilding a car when starting off with only a chassis. Dias said it would be cheaper to buy a new one and sell the old one for scrap. In her 2018 letter to the state, former city manager LaForge said getting the plant running would take nine months and $1 million.

And, according to Dias, one of the water lines required to run the pellet plant no longer exists.

“The way this system was designed, there is one waterway that comes from all the wells,” Dias said. “The water was to come through that line, go through the plant, then go back to town on another line. At one point, the city cut one of the pipes and turned it into a sewer pipe. There isn’t any way to get the water back to the town. Before they did it, I went and begged the city manager, Michaele LaForge, not to do it. Now they would have to put a new line in and who knows what that would cost.”

Photo by Robert Eliason.
Photo by Robert Eliason.

Twelve years after the city purchased the pellet plant as the solution to its water problems, the machinery lies neglected and in bad need of repair. Freeman says offers have been made by scrap dealers to take it off the city’s hands.  

Despite not having the money to install the pellet plant, it shows up frequently in the city’s responses to the State Water Uses Control Board following notices of violations. Out of 189 violations for chemical pollutants from June 2007 through March of this year, 164 of the city’s responses share one common factor: they all have some variation of the phrase that the city is “proceeding with a project to install a water softening system to reduce the hardness of all of its well water.” 

Beyond the pellet plant

In its next move to solve its water issues, the city looked into developing three new wells, which became known as City Well #4, City Well #5, and City Well #6.  

City Well #4 is a test well dug beside Mission Farm RV Park that seemed promising. But the city could not work out terms with the property owner, according to Bracewell, and it was abandoned. 

City Well #5 was purchased and City Well #6 was drilled. The two wells are productive, but there are issues with the water quality. City Well #5 suffers from hard water and in an April 9 report measured a level of 96 mg/L of CaCO3. The same report places City Well #6 hard water with a level of 86-91 mg/L of CaCO3.

At the end of the day, the city has six wells, but only three produce drinkable water. The hardness problem still exists. And after 12 years, unacceptable amounts of pollutants are still being dumped into streams leading to the Monterey Bay Marine Sanctuary.  

The culprit, and the source of 156 separate $3,000 violations over the last 12 years? The wastewater treatment plant.

Other related articles:

BL Special Report: San Juan Bautista’s water problems reaching critical mass

BL Special Report: San Juan’s wastewater treatment plant adds to city’s water woes

BL Special Report: Solving San Juan Bautista’s water problems

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Robert Eliason

I’ve been a freelance photographer since my dad stuck a camera in my hand on the evening of my First Grade Open House. My dad taught me to observe, empathize, then finally compose the shot.   I have had gallery showings and done commercial work but photojournalism is a wonderful challenge in storytelling.   The editors at BenitoLink have encouraged me to write stories about things that interest me, turning me into a reporter as well.  It is a great creative family that cares deeply about the San Benito community.