No. 9: Nacimiento Water Project plans push on despite setbacks

The countdown continues for the Top 10 Stories of 2009 selected by the Tribune editorial staff.

The Nacimiento Water Project — the county’s largest public works effort — heads into its final months of construction in 2010.

But even as residents and businesses prepare to use the millions of gallons of drinking water that the 45-mile pipeline will carry, one city is still figuring out how to pay for it, and the fallout from three construction deaths continues.

The $176.1 million project, which includes infrastructure as well as the pipeline, is slated to be finished in July, six months early.

Its finish is timely given that the state is heading into its third straight year of drought. The project stretches from the eastern shore of Nacimiento, through Camp Roberts, south to Paso Robles, Templeton and Atascadero and through the Cuesta Grade to a spot just north of San Luis Obispo at the city’s treatment plant.

Deaths on the job

Three people have died on the project since construction began in December 2007.

Local and federal officials began their investigation in August into the death of Timothy Nelson, who was run over by a dump truck at the Camp Roberts segment of the pipeline.

The 29-year-old Ojai man worked for Teichert Construction, the same Sacramento company that employed two men who drowned in October 2008 when an excavator ruptured a water pipe while they were inside it.

Teichert was fined $70,000 in February 2009 for each of the drowning deaths — Jacob Gaines, 24, of Bakersfield and Manuel Villagomez, 38, of Elk Grove.

That was the largest fine for any company in California doing excavation work in the state in at least three years, records show. Teichert is looking to appeal the fines, officials with the state’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration said Wednesday.

Federal OSHA investigators, who have jurisdiction over Nelson’s death, didn’t give a specific update on its investigation Wednesday but said the case is still open. In the summer, officials there said they would determine whether adequate safeguards were in place before the incident.

Water rate woes

Paso Robles, one of the pipeline’s five partners, faces severe effects to its reserves if it can’t increase water rates to pay for its share.

The city has proposed four separate water rate plans in the past three years in hopes of addressing concerns raised by a local citizens group. Voters rejected the latest proposal in November.

As the last partner to secure its pipeline funding, the city is working to develop yet another version of its rate plan that will now include a low-income aspect. The City Council has set up a public rates workshop for 6:30 p.m. Jan. 6 at 1000 Spring St. The city will unveil its newest proposal in early 2010 using input to be taken from that meeting and plans already in the works.

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