California's water-quality problems are often the underlying challenge to maintaining adequate supplies. Whether it is groundwater salinity in the Central Valley or groundwater contamination in Southern California basins, damage to the quality of water threatens both the environment and the economy.
In Sacramento, a major water- quality problem is the wastewater discharge from the regional treatment facility. It is time to address this problem. Its very real threat to the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta poses a threat to California's overall economic well-being.
The Santa Ana River, as an example of a watershed operating under modern standards, is a key source of drinking water for Riverside and Orange counties. This has prompted the regional water quality control board over the years to require upgrades of the wastewater facilities on the river so that the discharge does not pose a threat to millions of residents and visitors who rely on this supply. Every member agency of the Santa Ana Watershed Project Authority that discharges wastewater into this river has upgraded to advanced, tertiary treatment technology.
The Delta is a drinking water source for 25 million Californians. There is no greater, no more important drinking water supply for California than the Delta. Equally important, the Delta is an estuary, widely regarded as the most important such environment on the West Coast.
The Delta didn't face the same environmental crisis that it does today when a much smaller Sacramento region in 1982 built a single large wastewater facility on the Sacramento River. But over the years, this estuary has clearly suffered from a variety of stresses. Water diversions in and upstream of the Delta are a stress, but so are invasive species and habitat loss and yes, wastewater discharges.
The Sacramento Regional County Sanitation District facility has not d its treatment technology in its generation of existence. It still operates under a "secondary" form of treatment that does not remove forms of nitrogen such as ammonium. An estimated 14 tons of ammonium enter the river every day.
Research has traced this plume as far as Suisun Bay and identified when this degradation of water quality profoundly shifts the Delta food web to the detriment of native, endangered species. Every major environmental regulatory agency disagrees with the district's belief that the science is insufficient to require advanced forms of wastewater treatment. The staff of the Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board has recommended treatment plant upgrades to its board for deliberations in December.
The Sacramento sanitation district is threatening to quintuple connection fees for new homes and businesses if forced to install the upgrades. This threat has understandably set off alarms in the local business community. But this funding strategy is contrary to standard industry practice. New connections are legally not on the line to pay disproportionately for a treatment plant upgrade that is necessary due to an existing, underlying problem. Monthly rates will need to rise comparable to other areas where treatment systems have been brought up to modern standards. Affordability is not the issue here. The issue is protecting the Delta and water quality.
The cost-effective time to take action is now. At the moment, the State Water Quality Control Board has low-interest funds available for treatment plant upgrades. The state and EPA could help Sacramento and other communities by extending the payback time for these loans from 20 years to 30 or even 40 years. The expected life span of this upgraded facility justifies such an extension.
Communities statewide are making investments to shift to more sustainable water and wastewater practices. For Sacramento, improving water quality is a positive. It is a key part of a true green agenda.
It is time for the local wastewater district and its leaders to shift the community dialogue from one of false panic to one that exemplifies this great region's true ethic – stewardship.