On Aug. 18, the San Juan Bautista City Council voted to agree to terms and conditions set by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) as a first step in resolving the water problems that have plagued the city for over 12 years.
“It is a positive step, for sure,” said City Manager Don Reynolds. “But it only addresses the EPA concerns and we are still working with the [California State Water Resources Control Board] to address their issues.”
Those concerns regard the high level of sodium, chloride and bacterial pollutants being discharged into the Pajaro River from the wastewater treatment plant that earned the city over $800,000 in fines levied in March of this year.
The settlement requires major changes to water quality both coming into the city for use and wastewater being processed for release. It sets a timetable for full compliance by Dec. 31, 2023.
“The order set out objectives that we have to strive to meet,” Reynolds said. “We met the first two, which were due Sept. 1, 2019, and we are working on the third one now, which is adopting a master plan for water and wastewater systems.”
The first step in the process is to establish San Juan Bautista’s status as a Disadvantaged Community (DAC), a state designation which can attract more state and federal assistance and allow the city to roll the amount of the fine into the solution rather than having to pay it outright.
In the next few weeks, residents will take part in a survey to establish whether the city qualifies for DAC status, which takes into account the economics of the community, factoring in the poverty level, unemployment rate, and the number of households below the median income level.
“We were eligible under the unemployment rate as of April, but the more recent rates have come down below the required 10%,” said Reynolds. “We will be trying to qualify under the median income status instead.”
On Sept. 15, the City Council is scheduled to adopt the water master plan, which is also the EPA’s deadline. The terms of the agreement set Oct. 15 as a deadline for selecting which of the proposed solutions will be put into place. At this point, Reynolds is leaning toward a solution recommended by Stantec Consulting Services in the Potable Water Source Control in its report to the city.
“Our technical team is comfortable recommending working with the San Benito Water District to import surface water from the West Hills Treatment Plant,” Reynolds said. “The Water District met a month ago and agreed to work with us in developing a six-mile pipeline leading to the edge of the city, right by our existing new water plant. That water is not hard water and has very little salt in it. It is better than any water we can get from our existing wells.”
In an Aug. 27 press release, EPA Pacific Southwest Regional Administrator John Busterud said, “The upgrades at the San Juan Bautista wastewater treatment plant will be critical to protecting public health and water quality of the San Benito River watershed. Partnering with the Water Boards, we are pleased to work with the City of San Juan Bautista to achieve these improvements to the City’s wastewater operations.”
Reynolds feels that this is a major step forward in resolving both the EPA’s concerns and the longstanding issues with water quality and pollution.
“It’s very complicated,” Reynolds said. “But it demonstrates to the water board that we are committed to solving the problem and we are committed to the long-term solution and investment.”
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