Paso Robles planning sewer-rate hike

Paso Robles will likely introduce a plan early next year to increase sewer rates and connection fees to pay for an estimated $52 million upgrade of its wastewater treatment plant.

If the City Council approves the rate hikes, the project could begin as soon as fall 2011, with construction taking an estimated 21⁄2 years. The city is seeking a low-interest loan from the state; the new rates will be used to pay the bill.

The upgrade is critical, wastewater manager Matt Thompson said. Without it, he said, the city would continue to face steep state fines because its discharge of harmful pollutants into the Salinas River doesn’t meet new quality standards.

The city owns, maintains and operates the treatment plant, which was built in 1954 and treats 3 million gallons per day.

Today, the plant is worn out, officials say. Bar screens have deteriorated, filters are overloaded, clarifiers are damaged from the 2003 San Simeon Earthquake, and the underground piping and electrical systems are failing, Thompson said.

Plus, state requirements from 2004 say the city must reduce its discharge of pollutants of ammonia, nitrate, copper, and other organic and chemical compounds, Thompson said. “The water board regularly fines the city for violating its wastewater discharge permit,” he said, noting that Paso Robles has paid $156,000 in penalties between July 2004 and August 2009.

The average penalty in recent years has been $9,000 a month, he added. That could increase to $10,000 a day if the plant is not modernized.

The plant was overhauled and expanded in 1972, 1987 and 2002, staff said, but its technology has never changed.

The upgrade is designed to bring the plant into compliance with discharge regulations, and incorporate energy efficiency in its building features and equipment.

The plant’s 140 miles of sewers and 14 pump stations serve Paso Robles and nine percent of Templeton; as a result, Templeton residents must pay nine percent of the upgrade cost.