What is the regulatory mandate driving these rate increases?
Under federal and state law, wastewater treatment agencies like ours must comply with a wastewater discharge permit in order to release treated wastewater back into the environment. These permits are essentially a detailed and complex set of operating conditions, completely unique to each treatment facility.
In our region, this discharge permit is issued by the Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board (Regional Water Board), one of many regional state agencies that set and enforce standards to protect California’s waters. Our latest permit, issued in December 2010, includes strict new mandates that require a major investment—about $1.5–2.1 billion—in new treatment technologies. Regulators cite the Delta’s ongoing environmental decline and the need to protect recreational and municipal uses of the Sacramento River as the reasons for these strict new limits.
How much will rates go up to pay for the new treatment upgrades?
Residential rates are expected to increase gradually each year from the current rate to the high $30s by 2021–2023. Industrial and commercial rates and fees will increase, as well.
Regional San will continue to refine rate and fee projections for funding the construction and operation of the EchoWater project. These projections are based on detailed and updated cost estimates of the selected treatment upgrades, debt financing methods, external funding assistance, and other factors.
Who is the Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board?
The Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board (Regional Water Board) is a state agency charged with enforcing the Clean Water Act to protect California’s waters. The Regional Water Board’s members are appointed by the governor and confirmed by the State Senate. The Regional Water Board is one of many similar regional state agencies that set and enforce standards, which vary based on the operating conditions of each facility.
Why is Regional San’s permit so strict?
Our region is upstream from the Delta, which is a major source of California’s water supply—both for people and agriculture. With the Delta in environmental distress from a wide range of causes, scrutiny on any potential impact to the Delta has intensified. The Regional Water Board has concluded that mandating a much higher level of treatment for our discharge will ultimately benefit the Delta.
What will the EchoWater processes do?
The new treatment upgrades will be designed to remove nearly all the ammonia, nitrates and pathogens from our treated wastewater. A “biological nutrient removal” process will eliminate nearly all ammonia and most nitrate, while new filtration equipment will help remove smaller particles and more pathogens (bacteria/viruses) from the effluent, as compared with the existing treatment process. Enhanced disinfection will also be implemented to inactivate pathogens that may remain even after treatment.
What are the various projects making up EchoWater?
Take a look here to see the many different projects that will be under construction from now through 2021–2023.
Why do ratepayers have to foot the bill for EchoWater?
Because Regional San is funded entirely by its customers, the EchoWater upgrades to the treatment plant will need to be paid for by gradually increasing monthly rates (for existing customers) and impact fees (for new users connecting to the system). We understand and empathize with our customers who will shoulder the burden of these costs—nobody wants to see rates go up, but there is simply no choice if we are to comply with the new regulations. (For qualified low-income customers, rate savings are available through our Sewer Lifeline Rate Assistance Program.)
What has Regional San done to help protect the environment?
Protecting the environment is a vital part of our mission. For more than three decades, we’ve been trusted to protect people, plants, animals, and aquatic life throughout the region. During this time, our Treatment Plant has boasted an exceptional record of meeting water quality standards. But our commitment to the environment and public health goes far beyond regulatory compliance.
We also recycle water to irrigate schools and parks. We produce high-quality biosolids to serve as fertilizer. We conserve wetlands, renew woodlands and grasslands, and protect hundreds of acres of habitat in the Bufferlands surrounding our Treatment Plant. We even recycle methane gas, a byproduct of the treatment process, by converting it into electrical energy.
We’ve also invested millions of dollars in water quality research, and we continue to advocate and support high-quality scientific research. We monitor pollutant conditions in the Sacramento River, and we’ve brought people together in programs that help improve the health of the Sacramento River watershed. Finally, we’ve been working very closely with other agencies to advance the science and discover how best to address the Delta’s decline.
What is Regional San doing to comply with the mandates?
We are moving forward aggressively with the EchoWater Project to make sure we meet the compliance schedule, which requires the upgrades be operational by 2021-2023. Initially, to test a number of advanced technologies and help narrow down the most effective and lowest-cost solutions, we developed a small-scale pilot project. This pilot effort has helped us evaluate and select the potential methods that will best address the new requirements for ammonia and nitrate removal, filtration and disinfection.
Our pilot testing was effective in showing that some of the lower cost-technologies we evaluated will perform well enough to meet the strict new standards. This could bring potential savings of several hundred million dollars in costs for building the full-scale project when compared to our original cost estimates.
How is the project being managed?
One of the key initial tasks after the permit was issued was to develop an effective program management structure for the project. Regional San hired a top-qualified team of consultants to support our staff in overseeing the project and making sure the new facilities are developed in a cost-effective manner while also meeting permit and schedule requirements.
The EchoWater Program Management Office is also charged with providing oversight and carefully reviewing the work of other specialists hired to tackle the many complex tasks during planning, design and construction.
What was learned during the pilot studies?
To plan the full-scale plant improvements, the EchoWater team conducted detailed pilot testing. A small-scale “pilot project” was built next to the existing treatment plant to study and test various treatment methods and alternatives to help identify the treatment technology that is the most feasible, cost-effective and efficient for the full-scale treatment solution.
During pilot studies, identifying and testing the most viable treatment trains (the combination of components that make up a wastewater treatment system) was an essential step in confirming the technologies will perform as anticipated. The treatment trains tested during pilot activities included an air activated sludge process followed by granular media filtration or membrane filtration, then either chlorine, ultraviolet light or ozone for disinfection.
The pilot study identified the following preferred technologies for the full-scale project:
A combined ammonia and nitrate removal process, referred to as biological nutrient removal (BNR)
Granular media filtration (GMF)
Liquid chlorine disinfection
How will Regional San keep project costs as low as possible?
The pilot study resulted in Regional San identifying lower cost technologies for the full-scale project, potentially saving several hundred million dollars in project costs compared to those originally estimated. The reduced costs attributable to technology confirmation by the pilot study are in the following key areas:
Filtration: Choosing granular media filtration over the more expensive membrane filtration.
Disinfection: Choosing liquid chemical disinfection over ultraviolet (UV) or ozone processes.
During development of a major capital project like EchoWater, key decisions made in the future will affect the overall cost of the project. Because choices regarding equipment, materials and methods of construction and operation will ultimately impact our ratepayers, it is extremely important that we select the most cost-effective solutions. With that in mind, the EchoWater team will constantly look for opportunities to reduce project costs while ensuring strict compliance with permit requirements.
A variety of techniques will be used to control costs during design and construction. For example, Reliability Centered Design methods will help us design the appropriate size and number of facilities, featuring only reliable components that are easy (and thus less costly) to maintain. We’ll also use a Business Case Evaluation framework to evaluate alternative solutions based on significant life cycle cost, risk and facility performance considerations. That will give us a clear picture over the long haul of future operations, not just for initial construction.
The bottom line is that our continual efforts to ensure cost-effective design and construction will bring better value for our ratepayers.
How will the project be financed?
In April 2015, Regional San was approved to receive nearly $1.6 billion in low-interest financing from the State of California’s Clean Water State Revolving Fund. This is the largest single block of financing ever issued to a project under the California Clean Water State Revolving Fund program. This unique financing approach will reduce the long-term EchoWater Project financing costs through favorable terms for interest rate and loan term – saving at least a half billion dollars over the life of the loan compared to traditional bond funding.
How will Regional San keep customers informed?
We are committed to communicating with all of our customers about the EchoWater Project during the course of the project. To ensure there are no surprises, we are using a variety of outreach and communication methods as we strive to keep you informed every step of the way. For example, this website is updated periodically with news and developments, and we also mail newsletters or notices to keep our ratepayers informed. Billboard ads and radio spots are being used to drive people to the website to learn more about why the EchoWater Project is being built.
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