A letter hitting most residential mailboxes in the capital region this week offers startling information: It soon may cost three times more to flush your toilet.
That is, if you agree with the numbers.
The letter was sent by the Sacramento Regional County Sanitation District, which treats sewage flushed by 1.3 million people in the capital metro area and discharges it into the Sacramento River.
That effluent could be subject to strict new pollution limits under a new state permit to be discussed at a hearing Dec. 9 in Rancho Cordova.
The goal is to protect public health and aquatic habitat in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta from pollutants, including ammonia, giardia, chlorpyrifos and cyanide.
You won't learn any of that from the mailer, however. It merely warns people their sewer bills could jump from $20 to $61.50 per month, and suggests they attend the meeting to comment.
The numbers are based on a district estimate that complying could cost $2 billion.
"We need to get as many people riled up about this as we possibly can," Kerri Howell, a Folsom City Council member and chairwoman of the sanitation district, said when the mailer was approved Nov. 10.
The approach seems to be having that effect on some recipients.
"Looking at a potential $41.50-a-month rate increase is pretty ugly," said Steven Picco, a Rancho Cordova resident who got the mailer Tuesday. "That could be a problem for a lot of people."
But actual compliance costs remain highly uncertain, a fact not disclosed in the mailer, which has become the latest grenade in an unusually heated war between governments.
On one side, the Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board, a state agency, is proposing the new wastewater permit terms. The board is charged with enforcing the federal Clean Water Act.
On the other side stands the Sacramento Regional County Sanitation District, the local agency that will be bound by the permit. It is led by city and county elected officials throughout the region.
The district must obtain a new Clean Water Act permit from the state board every five years. Its last permit was issued in 2000, and the district has operated under an extension for the past five years as the complex new permit was drafted.
The district disagrees with many terms of the draft permit, and has charged the state board with exceeding its authority.
"There's still a lot of folks that don't know about the issues," said district spokeswoman Claudia Goss. "We think it's a responsibility we have to tell our ratepayers about not only the hearing, but also what's to come when there's a possible $2 billion hit to the region's pocketbook."
The mailer was sent to about 400,000 households and cost about $172,000, according to a staff report.
Goss said there wasn't room to explain the district's cost estimates or why the regulations are proposed at all – omissions that irritate the state water board.
"We do not particularly agree with the magnitude of the costs," said Ken Landau, assistant executive officer of the regional water board. "And they have totally left off the benefit to public health and the environment that we are trying to address."
One of many pollutants in dispute is ammonia, a normal byproduct of human urine and feces that is not removed by Sacramento's wastewater treatment process. Sacramento is the largest source of ammonia in the Delta, where it is suspected of altering the food chain and killing fish.
Removing ammonia would require upgrading to so-called "tertiary" treatment, an expensive step.
The district agrees its ammonia volume should be cut in half, but says this can be done without a tertiary system.
It also wants to avoid complete removal of infectious giardia and cryptosporidium, which may require filtration.
The water board says the district favors rules that could allow one in 100 people recreating in the Sacramento River to get sick from these pathogens.
The district's $2 billion cost is a so-called "Class 5" estimate. This engineering term signals great uncertainty and indicates that actual costs could vary from half that amount to twice as much.
The regional board hired its own consultant to review potential costs. The firm, PG Environmental of Virginia, suggested different methods could satisfy the rules for $1.3 billion.
It also reviewed rates in other cities that have met similar permit terms, and many have done so at rates well below $60 a month, including Roseville, Tracy and Lodi.
The district stands by its estimate, saying unique site conditions and current operations limit the options.
"The ones that our cost estimates are based on, these are technologies that have a high probability of working," said Prabhakar Somavarapu, director of policy and planning. "You have to kind of tailor it for the water that you have."
The Dec. 9 meeting begins at 8:30 a.m. at 11020 Sun Center Dr. No. 200, Rancho Cordova.