San Juan Bautista City Council hears plan to fix contaminated water

The San Juan Bautista City Council heard a report on how the city could fix its problem of nitrate-contaminated water.


San Juan Bautista City Council members heard an update on the plan to solve the city’s nitrate-contaminated water at Tuesday night’s regular meeting at City Hall.

They also chose a new mayor and vice mayor for 2018, hired an assistant city manager and set a hearing date to remove John Hopper from the city planning commission with cause.

J. Edward Tewes, interim city manager, laid out the water system strategy. It is the result of a California Water Resources Board, Division of Drinking Water, citation for failing to meet water well standards for nitrates. The city also was cited for having insufficient backup well capacity for meeting its water demand.

The citations were made in June, and the San Benito County Department of Environmental health has twice sent out warnings to city residents not to drink the water. Bottled water has been made available at City Hall. A reverse osmosis system was set up behind the fire station, where residents can fill containers of up to five gallons of water per visit.

Nitrates, in the city’s water can be associated with fertilizers used in agriculture. High levels of nitrates can interfere with the ability of red blood cells to carry oxygen to body tissues. They produce a condition called methemoglobinemia. Infants who ingest too many nitrates can develop “blue baby syndrome.” Nitrates also can adversely affect pregnant women. According to U.C. Davis studies, "In adults, long-term exposure to high nitrate levels in drinking water is potentially also associated with thyroid dysfunction and cancer. Where groundwater is the source of drinking water, nitrate may exceed the national drinking water standard of nitrate (45 mg nitrate per liter or, equivalently, 10 mg of nitrate-measured-as-nitrogen per liter)."

The city’s first step in solving the problem, Tewes said, was abandoning well No. 2, the source of the nitrates. The city now relies on well No. 1 to fill its storage reservoir, which provides system pressure and supply to customers.

The city has analyzed wells Nos. 5 and 6 for water standards. They have been found to be in compliance. Well No. 5 is expected to be on line by March, while well No. 6 is expected to be available no later than October.

Implementing both of these changes require the city to jump through some hoops. 

Well No. 5 is linked to the Copperleaf subdivision by Edenbridge Homes. The company is required to provide a well site and develop a well to replace well No. 2. The city, Tewes explained, will reimburse Edenbridge for developing the new well and be credited against its water connection fees. That amount is estimated at $380,000.

So far, Tewes reported, Edenbridge has paid for a test well, water quality and capacity testing, installation of the pump and some water connections. Still to be completed is the well site development. That will include a well house, a control building, a storage facility and an emergency generator, a pad for an iron/manganese treatment facility and water connections to the city system.

Tewes said the new wells, while meeting drinking water standards, are not likely to meet secondary standards. So an iron/manganese treatment system will be needed for both wells No. 5 and 6. That will be paid for with Water Fund resources currently budgeted. The cost is $160,000.

Fixing well No. 6 will require some adjustments too. Tewes said he has reached an agreement with Dale Coke to acquire an agriculture well on his property, designated well No. 6.

The agreement, which must be approved by the City Council, calls for a swap of land. The city will get the Coke property well in exchange for about 0.8 acres of city property at the corner of Mission Vineyard and San Juan Hollister Road. Coke will acquire well No. 3, which he can abandon or use for agriculture.

The city will pay Coke an initial payment of $100,000 for his well, with 10 annual payments.

San Juan Bautista will install well connections to allow Coke to use water from well No. 6. It also will waive sewer and water connection fees should Coke decide to develop the exchanged city property, provided it is converted from ag to urban use within 10 years.

Tewes said the city will acquire an easement from an adjoining property owner to assure the state that the No. 6 well site is protected from incompatible land uses.

Next came up the pelletized water softening plant. The city has the plant. It was purchased as part of a bond issue and was to be installed at well No. 3. That strategy now has to be re-evaluated, Tewes said. Among the questions that must be answered are:

If relocated to well No. 6 and plumbed to treat both wells 5 and 6, is the existing equipment sufficient or will a redesign be required?

Will the pellet plant alone reduce water hardness and salts sufficient to allow the waste water treatment plant to meet standards for discharge into a creek? The city is paying a deferred state fine of $3,000 a month for failure to meet the requirements. Will removal of private water softeners be required to meet the standards?

What are the costs to redesign, move, install and operate the pellet plant, and what are the costs to customers to remove private water softeners?

What are the options for sale or reuse of the pellet plant equipment if it is decided it’s not feasible to proceed?

The questions, Tewes said, are being evaluated by Bracewell Engineering and Harris Associates, the city’s contract engineer.

In other actions, the council approved naming Jim West was mayor and John Freeman as vice mayor for 2018. Chris Martorana served as mayor in 2017 and West as vice mayor.

The council unanimously approved the appointment of Michaele LaForge, a 20-year San Juan Bautista resident, as assistant city manager/public works and utilities director.

LaForge has held executive management positions in the high-tech industry and in food production. She is a graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy and served as a helicopter pilot in the first Gulf War.

Tewes said LaForge has expressed interest in being appointed city manager when he leaves. That would be no later than May. LaForge’s first day on the job will be Jan. 2. Her salary will be $85,000.

The council set a Jan. 16 hearing on a proposed motion to remove planning commission chairman John Hopper with cause. The vote was 3-2, with members Dan DeVries and John Freemen dissenting.

Freeman said he did not think the matter was warranted and that the issues regarding Hopper’s service are old. DeVries said Hopper has apologized to the public and city and that it’s time to move on. “This is not a problem that needs solving,” he said.

The causes for proposed action against Hopper were not announced.

The council also approved payment of $13,500 to Hexagon Traffic Consultants for a traffic calming study on Fourth and Third streets. Speed data will be collected after first of the year when school is in session.

Note:  When asked what led to the proposed removal of Hopper from the planning commission former mayor Chris Martorana referred to the video of the November City Council meeting.

He said by phone Thursday that it is a “contentious issue” and “as far as discussing it now, I’m not going to do so.”

At the November meeting, Martorana moved to remove Hopper without cause. There was also discussion of alleged Brown Act violations by council members. A letter by Hopper was read

at Tuesday’s meeting by Freeman which did not address the reasons he is being considered for removal. It said that he wants to continue as chairman and hopes the matter can be resolved.  

Thomas Leyde