The Pleasanton City Council voted unanimously last week to pause the PFAS treatment and wells rehabilitation project, which was intended to address water quality and purification, because of rising costs and other factors.
City staff recommended halting the final design of the project in order to evaluate other alternatives to address the contaminated water wells in Pleasanton such as locating a new well that isn't contaminated or sourcing out to a regional water supplier.
They said that while the treatment and rehabilitation project could still be the best possible choice, its original price-tag of $46 million including design, construction and supporting services merits further evaluation into other options.
"The PFAS and rehabilitation project is still a viable option. It behooves us to compare it to other cost comparisons, reliability, things like that, to see if there's any options that might make it more attractive and less risky for the city," said Daniel Repp, managing director of utilities and environmental services for the city.
PFAS, technically known as per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, have been widely used and long-lasting chemicals, components of which break down very slowly over time, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. In recent years, city officials have discovered PFAS in the city's groundwater supply facilities -- specifically in the city-maintained wells -- and have been working to address the problem.
Pleasanton owns and operates three well facilities that provide approximately 20% of the city's annual water supply. The remaining annual water supply is purchased from the Zone 7 Water Agency.
"These well facilities pump the city's yearly groundwater allotment of 3,500 acre-feet, which is about 20% of the city's water supply, with the remaining purchased from Zone 7," said Todd Yamello, utilities planning manager. "The three wells also helped meet peak summer demands."
Apart from finding PFAS chemicals, the city also found that the well facilities, which Yamello said were built in the 1960s, are reaching the end of their useful lives and require rehabilitation or replacement.
In June 2021, the council authorized staff to proceed with final design for the PFAS treatment and wells rehabilitation project. The scope of work for the project was to treat and rehabilitate wells 5, 6 and 8 in Pleasanton and to create a new centralized treatment facility for PFAS treatment, disinfection and fluoridation.
"Basically all the water from the three groundwater wells would be pumped over to the treatment facility which would be located at the city's operations service center," Yamello said.
Yamello said since the meeting last summer, staff have completed 50% of the final design with 100% completion anticipated in June 2023 but due to several reasons, primarily financial uncertainty, staff asked the council to suspend the project.
One of the main reasons for the suspension is the construction cost for two wells of $5.2 million and $2.4 million, respectively, might go up by 30% due to the impact of recent inflation trends on the bidding market.
Another reason is that the city does not own or operate a water treatment plant and the PFAS treatment facility will require additional staff and have significant annual operational costs.
"Right now we are currently primarily a distributor of water," Yamello said. "Although we do have wells and we do do treatment, it is mostly around typical distribution. The PFAS project will require higher levels of treatment, additional staffing, (and) additional staffing type of requirements."
Continuing with the project would mean that Pleasanton could enter into the water treatment world, similar to Zone 7 -- something that the council will have to consider later in the future.
That shift to water treatment is another reason why staff want to pause the project. They want to assess whether getting into the water treatment business, so to speak, is the best option with the drought and contamination issues the city is facing right now.
The main question at hand is -- does Pleasanton want to get into the water treatment world and maintain local control of at least some of its water supply, or does it want to branch out and look at other options of bringing in local or regional water from elsewhere?
"The importance of water in our community and the importance of getting resolution and moving forward with a project is on our radar, it's not lost on us," City Manager Gerry Beaudin said. "We want to make sure that we're being responsive to community needs and identifying an option that allows us to move forward with creating local water supply.
But one of the main issues with this pause, even though the council unanimously approved it on Sept. 6, was the timeline aspect and how staff were not able to give the council a specific deadline on the evaluation work.
"There are a couple of options that I think we would want to look at more carefully in terms of treatment. There are companies that do this for cities and so we would want to evaluate that kind of an option," Beaudin said.
"We have a general direction about where we want to go with this study and it's really just a matter of engaging with the folks who do this for a living. I can't tell you today whether it will take three months, six months or 12 months but it will be something that we would, with council direction, get out and get a scope of work done and the work underway as quickly as possible," he added.
Councilmember Kathy Narum, who serves on the water liaison committee alongside Mayor Karla Brown, said that while she supports the pause, she wants to emphasize that the issue should now be the top priority for staff.
"I'm not going to agree to pause unless all five of us say this is our No. 1 priority and everything else, unless it's health or safety for our residents, takes a backseat. I don't care what it is," Narum said.
She said that she wants to see an outlined plan with deadlines on tasks for the evaluation so no time is wasted.
Additionally, Narum said she wants to see if there is any possibility to look at other locations outside of the contaminated area of water wells to construct a new well that doesn't have contaminated water.
Staff have already drilled a test well near the Dolores Bengtson Aquatic Center and the Pleasanton Gingerbread Preschool to look at the viability of constructing a new one. While PFAS was found in that test well, Yamello said as the city dug further down there were less contaminants, which could be information the city could use in the future.
However, Brown said that the city should look further into Zone 7's recent Aug. 31 board meeting, which showed PFAS trends underground moving west and said that there wouldn't be a point in drilling a new well if it will inevitably be contaminated.
Another main point of discussion was having Zone 7 provide 100% of the city's water in the future due to the treatment project being on hold.
Councilmember Julie Testa asked staff about a possible partnership with the water agency to supplement that 20% if the city is required, or needs, to shut down its existing wells.
"We have heard that they believe they have the ability to do that and we're waiting for a formal response back from them," Repp said.
Repp added that if the wells do shut down, Zone 7 is required to provide water to its retailers, including Pleasanton. Beaudin added that with new state advisory levels for how much contaminants can be detected in the water coming in early next year, there is a strong possibility the city will have to seek other water suppliers.
"We will likely have an issue where we will not have our well situation, our treatment situation sorted in time ... we will need water from Zone 7 to meet our peak demands of 15% to 20% that we currently get from the groundwater. So we have to figure that part out, regardless of what we do with treatment in the near-term future."
Repp said that if the city purchases the 20% of water it typically gets from its wells, it could cost roughly $3.7 million per year, which would fall to the ratepayers.
"Ultimately, water is important and so the policy question and the reason that we're posing it at this time is really because we're at the cusp of being on a path to be in the water treatment business as an organization," Beaudin said. "That's the policy question that I really wanted to bring to you all this evening is, are we comfortable being in the treatment business with pumping local groundwater at this time or do we want to look at some of these other alternatives?"
For Pleasanton resident Jill Buck, losing local water control is something she is opposed to after remembering how rich Pleasanton's water used to be.
"I think one of the things that makes me a little bit sad, and there's not one thing we can do about it, but this town used to be water-wealthy," Buck said during public comment. "There was a time, a couple of lifetimes ago, when we could water a whole field with artesian wells, poke a hole in the ground and the water bubbled up."