Government / Politics

San Juan Bautista selects path to resolve water problems

City will send waste water to Hollister and import water from West Hills Water Treatment Plant.

Two days before the deadline to submit its “compliance project,” the San Juan Bautista City Council voted 4-1 on a regional approach to solving its water problems over an in-house option. The city will send its waste water to the Hollister Wastewater Treatment Plant and import water from the West Hills Water Treatment Plant. Councilman Dan De Vries was the lone “no” vote at the Oct. 13 meeting. 

City Manager Don Reynolds said San Juan Bautista has a four-part system that includes water source, water distribution, wastewater collection and wastewater treatment. The city is required to fix two of the parts to comply with the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) National Pollution Discharge Elimination System permit.

According to the San Benito County Water District, the West Hills Water Treatment Plant has the capacity to treat 4.5 million gallons of surface water per day and can be expanded to treat 9 million. An average family of four uses approximately 440 gallons of water per day.

According to data from the U.S. Census Bureau, San Juan Bautista has 742 housing units averaging 2.8 people per home. If the city’s residents averaged the same water usage, the combined use would be 346,480 gallons of water each day. 

Over a 12-year period, San Juan has amassed over $800,000 in fines from the California State Water Resources Control Board for discharging high levels of sodium, chloride and bacterial pollutants into the Pajaro River from the wastewater treatment plant. The city has until Dec. 21, 2023 to become compliant with the agreement it signed with the EPA on Aug. 18, which identifies the tasks San Juan Bautista needs to take to address its water issues, which at this point is the level of salt being discharged, according to the meeting agenda packet.

At the meeting, Steve Beck with Stantec Consulting Services said a preliminary engineer’s report considered three options: restoring the city pellet plant which was bought 12 years ago but never completely installed; replacing water softeners with domestic cartridge water softeners; or importing water from the West Hills Water Treatment Plant. A fourth option of constructing a new treatment plant in the city was discarded early in the process because it would be too costly for the population it would serve, he said. 

In its analysis, Beck said Stantec looked at criteria such as cost, life cycle, footprint, operational simplicity and reliability. Though the West Hills Water Treatment Plant is estimated to be the most costly option at $25.2 million, it outscored the other options in other criteria by 51 and 78 points, respectively. 

San Benito County Water District Manager and Engineer Jeff Cattaneo said his board is interested in contributing to the project financially. He said San Juan Bautista would ultimately pay back the water district through a water rate surcharge. 

Cattaneo said it would be the same approach the San Benito County Water District took with Hollister and the Sunnyslope County Water District, in which they install the pipeline and get repaid over a 20-to-30-year period, minus whatever contribution the county water district applies to the project. 

Reynolds tried to appease any council member concerns and said a $2 million U.S. Department of Agriculture grant loan could be used to pay for the pipe extension. He also said the San Benito County Water District had mentioned a grant for this project through groundwater fees taken from property taxes. 

“It wouldn’t be 100% paid through this 30-year financing mechanism,” Reynolds said. “There are four or five different ways that we would pay for this project.”

While Councilman John Freeman—who has a background in industrial water treatment—enthusiastically spoke in favor of regionalizing and said the city deserves clean water, De Vries was hesitant because he wanted San Juan Bautista to be independent and that the regionalized model would induce growth.

“Can we put safeguards in place to prevent that as our great city manager has suggested? Yeah, maybe we can. We have to,” De Vries said. “That’s our only hope. But for those two reasons I’m still not feeling as positive about this development as I need to be.”

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Noe Magaña

Noe Magaña is a BenitoLink reporter. He also experiments with videography and photography. A San Benito High School alumnus with a bachelor's in journalism from San Jose State and a Liberal Arts Associate's Degree from Gavilan College. Noe also attended San Jose City College and was the managing editor for the City College Times, the school's newspaper. He also was a reporter and later a copy editor for San Jose State's Spartan Daily.