Clean drinking water has been the city of Pleasanton's top priority these past few months after long-lasting PFAS chemicals were found in the city's groundwater wells, which are also reaching the end of their useful lives and require rehabilitation or replacement.
PFAS, or per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, are chemicals with components that break down very slowly over time, which the city has been working on addressing since it had to shut down one well due to PFAS back in 2019. The three city-owned wells account for about one-fifth of Pleasanton's potable water supply.
But as the City Council and staff were gearing up to move forward with a high-cost project to treat and rehabilitate the wells and the water in them, council members decided in September to pause the project in order to assess other options.
So last week, council members authorized staff to allocate $363,755 from the water utility enterprise fund and put that money toward a new capital investment project that would develop and analyze water supply alternatives.
"The objective of this project is to identify and evaluate alternatives for the city's groundwater pumping quota of 3,500 acre-feet per year and to inform the city whether we should proceed with the PFAS treatment project, or pursue a different alternative water supply option," said Daniel Repp, managing director of utilities and environmental services for the city.
The city owns and operates three well facilities that provide approximately 20% of its annual water supply. The remaining drinking water is purchased from the Zone 7 Water Agency.
The design plans for the PFAS treatment and wells rehabilitation project were originally set to be done by next summer, but on Sept. 6 the council authorized staff to pause the project in order to look at different alternatives. The idea 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.
One of the main reasons for that decision was because the estimated cost to build such a center was about $46 million, which included design, construction and supporting services.
So while the treatment center is still one of the options, city staff will be using the money from the newly authorized capital project to pay environmental firm Brown and Caldwell and other legal services to determine other options that might be less expensive.
The firm will be paid $263,755 to develop a full list of alternatives and then work with the city to rank and compare each one.
"There's a technical analysis where we'll be looking at the alternatives and developing those alternatives and prioritizing them," Repp told the council on Oct. 18. "There's also a portion of the project that's dedicated to legal analysis as well."
Some of the water supply alternatives that staff will be looking at during the next eight to 12 months include either using the city's current groundwater or purchasing the remaining water through outside water suppliers.
"I don't love the fact that we're waiting ... but I do think that the information that's going to come out of this project is very important and I'm glad that we're pursuing this," Pleasanton resident Jill Buck said during public comments. "But I would really like to see this project happen as fast as humanly possible."
Apart from looking at the treatment center, staff will also explore using other areas in the city that are not affected by the PFAS bloom and drilling new wells there or getting Zone 7 to pump the water for the city.
The legal services, which the city will be setting aside up to $100,000 for funding, will look at water laws in terms of the city's different contracts with agencies like Zone 7.
"We'd like to have our attorney team take a look at our existing water supply agreements so we can understand what are our obligations under that agreement," Repp said. "We also are very interested to understand the details around our pumping allotment."
According to the city website, Zone 7 has been blending groundwater wells and treating groundwater at its Mocho Groundwater Demineralization Facility to ensure that all drinking water is safe to drink. Zone 7 test results showed no detection of PFAS in their water supplies.
Other than authorizing the new capital project to look at different alternatives, the council also made several recommendations for staff to either look into, or to take care of after the meeting finished.
Councilmember Kathy Narum, who is on the council's Water Liaison Committee, told staff that there first needs to be a focus on strengthening and promoting a robust conservation program with existing landscaping.
"If it's tearing out yards, you know, whatever it is, needs to be part of this ... because that can help us with this gap that we're going to have potentially with water," Narum said.
Councilmember Jack Balch agreed with the motion and said that his main concern was wanting to bolster water conservation for next summer, so that the city doesn't have to utilize the wells or utilize them in minor amounts.
"Figuring out what we're going to do for summer 2023 is most critical to bridging the gap from what I see right now, given the amount of water used for outdoor irrigation alone in our community," Balch said. "We have to address that in some manner."
Tamara Baptista, interim director of operations and water utilities for the city, said the goal is to have these alternatives evaluated before next October so the city can have a plan implemented before then.
One thing Balch suggested was enhancing the city's lawn conversion rebate, which awards residents up to $2,575 in rebates for switching up their lawn plants to native ones that don't need much water.
He also said the city needs to look at the housing growth and look at prohibiting turf for new homes.
Vice Mayor Valerie Arkin added to that saying that the city should look into backyard rebates to further incentivize residents on using less water.
Another motion made by the council was to have staff look into a two- to three-year plan of what they think the city's water needs are going to be assuming the wells are shut down.
The California State Water Resources Control Board, which investigates drinking water sources, extended a general testing order back in 2020 that the city is expecting to receive some time soon.
That order will contain information on the city's contamination levels in the water. If those levels exceed the maximum amount of contaminants, it would force the city to either shut down its drinking wells entirely or to have to send notifications to residents on the levels of PFAS in their drinking water.
Councilmember Julie Testa asked staff that because the city already has an idea of the levels of chemicals in the groundwater, if residents should start filtering their water -- to which City Manager Gerry Beaudin said no.
He said that the city will continue to follow guidelines from the Environmental Protection Agency and that residents, for now, shouldn't worry about changing their drinking water practices.
But with the new numbers coming soon, the council made a point to work as fast as possible to look at these alternatives to the water supply and to do so while also thinking about budgeting in advance.
"We're going to be studying for a year, we're going to be designing some portion of the solution we choose after that, and then we're going to be building," Balch said. "So I think we need to also be looking at financing and budgeting techniques so that we can be able to afford what we ultimately decided to do."
That also included telling staff to work closer with Zone 7 in speeding up the process of obtaining data so that the environmental firm can use it for its analysis. Up until now, staff said they are still waiting on a formal response from Zone 7 on possibly getting them to commit to helping the city pump water.
Beaudin said that because the annual water cycle just started, the city is positioned in a way where he wants to work on developing a plan so that the city doesn't have to renew water purchases every year.
"We currently go annually and ask for a water allocation or a water volume,'' Beaudin said. "Our plan here is to create some runway for ourselves in these discussions with Zone 7. Obviously we have to get through this first year but we're not going to wait until next October or late in the year to ask again. We need to get some clarity on our water supply relationship with Zone 7 and our legal team and our consultants can probably help with some of that as well."
Mayor Karla Brown also said she wanted to see Pleasanton work with other neighboring cities to address the Tri-Valley's shared water problem.
Communicating these efforts was also a big priority for the council as many of them stated it's important to bring in residents into the conversation so they know what is going on with their water.
Whether it's adding informational packets in people's water bills or creating a website similar to when the city went into labor negotiations with the Livermore-Pleasanton Fire Department, the council felt that residents deserve to be informed.
"We will make sure that we have direct outreach so that folks know what's happening along the way," Beaudin said.
In other business
* The council was set to consider a 10% salary increase for themselves in the consent calendar, but the item was continued until November.
Arkin was the one who said she was not comfortable with voting on the raise because she felt it was a politicized item in light of the November city council election. The proposed salary change would have resulted in an increase of $120.17 per month for each elected official -- $1,321.92 for council members and $1,421.92 for the mayor.
Arkin originally wanted to wait until after the election to vote on this, but city attorney Daniel Sodergren explained that salary raises cannot be changed in the middle of a term. He said the vote would have to take place before elections.
"The sitting council can't set their own salaries," Sodergren said. "So in other words, as long as there's a change in council, then it can be effective."
* Two proclamations were presented during the council meeting -- one on the Hacienda Business Park celebrating its 40th anniversary and the other on recognizing October as Hindu American Awareness and Appreciation Month.
Hacienda General Manager James Paxson received the recognition and told the council how appreciative he was of the community's support over the past few years, especially with the pandemic happening.
"We love working with the city and the community," Paxson said. "It's because of you that we are where we are today. So thank you for that."
For Hindu American Month, Testa presented the proclamation that celebrated Hindu traditions and the culture.
"The Pleasanton City Council does hereby proclaim October 2022 as Hindu American Awareness and Appreciation Month to acknowledge the rich history and combinations of Hindu Americans in our community, and may it have a lasting positive impact on our city, state and nation," Testa said.