A presentation on the next steps needed to clean up Pleasanton's contaminated groundwater wells to the tune of $46 million morphed into a broader discussion about finding regional alternatives and maintaining local control over water resources at the City Council meeting last Tuesday.
"I thought we were going to have a conversation about contract design, but it almost appears that right there with it is a question about Pleasanton's future as a water provider directly," Councilmember Jack Balch said before voting at the June 15 meeting.
In addition to proceeding with the final design phase for per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) treatment in the city's Wells 5, 6 and 8, the council unanimously adopted a draft "basis of design report" recently completed by a hired consulting firm.
After discovering PFAS in the city's groundwater supply facilities in recent years, officials have been working to address the problem. PFAS are synthetic chemicals found in common household items like paint and are "of emerging concern in drinking water due to their health impacts," according to staff.
Last September the council started the PFAS treatment process and backed a work plan that also includes the proposed project, as well as hired Carollo Engineering to complete the draft basis of design report.
A centralized treatment facility at the Operations Services Center has been recommended along with rehabilitating Wells 6 and Well 8, and replacing Well 5 with a new facility. Staff said the facility would provide PFAS treatment, disinfection, and fluoridation of groundwater from all three wells, as well as room for expansion.
While granular activated carbon is the preferred form of PFAS treatment, staff said the treatment system should be designed to accommodate either GAC media or ion-exchange media (IX) "due to the uncertainty of regulations, volatility of media pricing, and rapidly progressing field of research."
A new 18-inch pipeline to pump groundwater from Wells 5 and 6 to the Operations Services Center is also recommended, along with rehabilitating the on-site Well 8 facility, originally built in 1992. The report also recommended upsizing a 14-inch treated water distribution main on Santa Rita Road between Valley and Black avenues to 20 inches "to mitigate the impacts of Wells 5 and 6 groundwater being introduced into the treated water distribution system at a new location."
Due to its advanced age, the existing Well 5 facility is not recommended for rehabilitation. Instead, a new facility at Amador Park called Well 9 was suggested to replace the aging Well 5. Well 6 would have its well casing, equipment and systems that have reached the end of their useful life replaced, and then be renamed to Well 10.
The approximately $46 million price tag including design, construction and supporting services -- with estimated final design services at about $2.8 million and construction at $34.6 million -- raised questions from the council about water rates, alternative water sources, benefits for the community, and more.
"There's going to be a rate conversation that will have to occur in the future," Balch said. "A conversation about what the rates are for water in our community, to be able to facilitate some method for this, enterprise fund rates or some type of financing element, if we go forward."
Councilmember Kathy Narum asked about comparing the project cost with purchasing additional water from Zone 7, and was told there would be an annual debt service of about $3 million.
"The tradeoff is if we don't do it, we've got to go purchase that water, and that water would likely have a higher cost than doing this project," Narum said.
Mayor Karla Brown asked about the "actual cost per dollar, per acre-foot for this water."
"Because I'm looking at our operations cost and it looks like in 2019-20 we bought $17 million worth of water from Zone 7, plus we expect here in the future to buy $17.5 million," Brown said. "Then we're looking at a $35 million plus a total of $46 million project, and I think it deserves a little bit more math to figure out."
Brown added that the project started as "an inexpensive water supply that we could supplement Zone 7 water," which makes up approximately 80% of the city's total water portfolio.
"Now it's becoming an extremely expensive water supply to supplement Zone 7... I think it deserves some more discussion," Brown said.
Utilities planning manager Todd Yamello told the council, "This is a two-part project for us; this is PFAS treatment and that is the $20 million you're seeing in construction costs. We have wells, facilities that are aging, they've been built in 1960, so the other remaining portion of this is the rehab of these facilities."
During the public hearing, Zone 7 Board President Olivia Sanwong said, "In regards to the alternative plan about purchasing extra water from Zone 7 instead of the city facilities, I think that's something to be explored."
"The $4.5 million is an estimate to just keep that in mind... I think it's good to have an estimate to compare options but it is just that," Sanwong said.
After Sanwong finished her comments, Vice Mayor Julie Testa said, "You suggested that the $4 million was just an estimate. Are you implying it would be much higher than that?"
"I'm not implying higher or lower, just should there be that continued exploration," Sanwong replied. "Maybe that's something that could be explored, is to get a better idea of what that number might be."
Sanwong also suggested looking into an Alameda County study from 2010 "that the utility operators of the Tri-Valley consider forming and consolidating a municipal utility district to provide all of the water and sewer utilities for the Tri-Valley." The item came up briefly during a meeting last year but "none of the other board members agreed with me so it was not a favorable item to explore," Sanwong said.
"That's something else to consider when Pleasanton is thinking about the possibility of purchasing that 20% of water from Zone 7," she added.
Go Green Initiative CEO and co-founder Jill Buck phoned in to advocate for local control and warned the council to not be too reliant on getting more water from Zone 7.
"Though what we are talking about is 20% of our water, that's assuming that we can get as much water as we have been able to in the past from Zone 7," Buck said. "20% of their water is also groundwater that is mostly within the city limits of Pleasanton, and 80% of their water comes from the State Water Project, which is fragile in many ways, to say the least."
According to Buck, Zone 7 recently discussed a water transfer they needed "because they're only getting a small percentage of their allotment from the State Water Project this year."
Around this time last year, water was approximately $250 an acre-foot, but Buck said, "This year it's $850 an acre-foot, and that's because supply is low, so the idea that we can just indiscriminately purchase more water from Zone 7 may not be able to pan out."
Narum called the $46 million project cost "a hard number to swallow," but said that "at the end of the day, with debt financing and grants ... it's cheaper for residents to pay for the debt service versus to pay Zone 7, even at the current rates."
"They're going to have to raise their rates to cover their costs of the PFAS treatment plants as it is," Narum said. "But I think there's a bigger issue here. We've been talking about diversification since the drought and to walk away from our wells is one less source of water we have. And to be totally dependent on Zone 7, we're giving up some local control of our water and I don't think that's the way we want to go."
Testa said the project cost "sounds overwhelming, but I think we all recognize the importance of having the control over a source of our own water, and I think we all recognize that none of us would want to lose that."
Councilmember Valerie Arkin said, "It's a high price tag, but I think with what the debt service would cost us versus buying from Zone 7 … the cost is going to be even greater with Zone 7, and we do need to repair the wells, that's essential."
A design consultant will be selected, followed by council authorization to execute an agreement at a future meeting. Staff will continue monitoring developments in PFAS regulations and regional activity during the final design phase and update the council, as well as draft a financial plan for council approval.
Commissioning for the rehabbed Well 8, new Well 9, new pipeline and new filtration should happen by May 2024. After then, Well 5 will be permanently decommissioned and Well 6 shut down for rehabilitation, with an expected commissioning date of December 2024.
The project costs are to be funded by the city's capital improvement project budget.