Over the Hill

Lake water follows rocky path to Paso

My hometown, Paso Robles, is like an unlucky Monopoly player. It wants to buy the Water Works, but it keeps getting “Chance” cards that say, “Go back three spaces.”

But last week, our City Council did move one space forward. It approved the construction of a limited, seasonal, water treatment plant. That plant could take five years to build, but it would let us finally drink some of that Nacimiento Lake water we’re paying for but can’t use.

In 2004, the council contracted to buy 4,000 acre-feet of water per year from the proposed Nacimiento pipeline. That pipeline is now built and is carrying water right through Paso Robles.

But we can’t use any of it because lake water must be thoroughly treated, and Paso Robles doesn’t have a proper treatment plant. We also don’t have enough money to build a plant big enough to treat 4,000 acre-feet per year.

In 2007, the council started trying to raise water rates to pay for the Nacimiento project. Opponents responded with protests, a referendum election and lawsuits. Every increase the council proposed was thwarted until one finally passed in April. We’ll start paying it in January.

Another complication is water conservation. Since 2007, we Roblans have cut our water use 23 percent. That reduced the Water Department’s revenue.

Then there’s the 83-year-old reservoir on 21st Street. It’s so rickety, it might not survive another earthquake. Replacing it could cost $7.4 million.

Also, the city is already paying $4.2 million per year for the Nacimiento pipeline bonds. And it helps pay the operating and maintenance expenses. By 2014, they will cost us $1.3 million per year. And the Water Department’s cash reserves have shrunk to $20.7 million.

Last week, the council had three possible treatment plants to choose from. One cost $42 million. It could serve the city’s ultimate planned population of 44,000. The second cost $25 million. It could treat the entire 4,000 acre-feet of Nacimiento water each year. The third cost $10.7 million. It could handle only 2,000 acre-feet, but could later be expanded.

The council approved a three-step plan. First, build the smallest treatment plant in five years. Then, replace the old reservoir in the following two years. Finally, expand the treatment plant in the following three years.

So we’ll have to wait 10 or 11 years to finally use the entire 4,000 acre-feet of Nacimiento water that we’re paying for now. And we can also expect more water rate increases.

Reach Phil Dirkx at phild2008@sbcglobal.net or 238-2372.