Waste treatment flushes out concerns

By: Gus Thomson Journal Staff Writer
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Flushing a toilet isn’t supposed to add to stress levels. But septic system inspection proposals and wastewater treatment planning are adding another layer of stress to Placer County residents already burdened by a housing-bubble bust, growing uncertainty over jobs and a deep recession. Those concerns were evident Thursday when an estimated 150 people packed the Placer County Board of Supervisors chambers in Auburn for a town hall meeting organized by Assemblyman Ted Gaines on both issues. And while most of the speakers discussed a draft plan being considered by the state Water Resources Control Board to institute septic system inspections around the state, Auburn and Placer County’s ongoing wastewater treatment dilemma was also a topic. With state and federal lawmakers tightening regulations to clean up wastewater, local governments and residents have been burdened with anticipated cost increases. In Placer County’s case, the options have been to either upgrade the North Auburn treatment plant or tie in to a regional plant via a pipeline to Lincoln’s treatment plant. Last month, Jim Durfee, county Facility Services Department director, said the cost for the upgrade would be $88.5 million. The Lincoln tie-in is estimated at $133 million if Auburn participates. If Auburn doesn’t, Durfee said another $8 million will be needed. The current sewer fee in North Auburn’s District 1 is $67.84 a month. With the assumption that $18 million more in federal grants would still be given for a regional plan, the monthly fee would rise to $88.19 next year and from a projected $123 to $131.78 in 2011. Moving the county estimate out to 2015-16, the rate is projected to be between $146.15 and $154.87, depending on the amount of grant funding received and whether Auburn would be tying into the line to Lincoln. With the upgrade, the monthly fee for North Auburn properties would rise from $113 in 2010 to $134.21 in 2015. Jack Warren, city public works director, said that because Auburn finds itself not in compliance with EPA and state of California rules it needs to either hook onto the proposed regional pipeline or upgrade its Ophir Road plant. “The concept (for the regional line to Lincoln) has been around for 20 years and got some federal help,” Warren said. “But the federal appropriations are no longer with us, although there’s the possibility of new funding with the economic stimulus plan.” Final decisions on the regional option has yet to be made by the city or county, but a rate increase in 2007 allows the city to do everything it needs to do at the site to bring the treatment plant into compliance, he said. Another source of funding is also being touted as a solution for the future. That would be money from the Middle Fork Project – a network of water and power-generation facilities built nearly 50 years ago by the Placer County Water Agency. Relicensing in 2013 would signal a takeover of the power project from Pacific Gas & Electric and an opportunity to reap tens of millions of dollars in revenue a year. Former Auburn City Councilman Bob Snyder, a past president of the Placer-Nevada Regional Wastewater Task Force, said funding should come from that source to help with state and federal clean water regulations. While the wastewater treatment issue remains uncertain, with the board of supervisors yet to make a decision, septic system users are now facing the possibility of $325 inspections. It’s a straight money issue for residents staring a recession in the face. Applegate’s Harvey Keller said he believes $325 is just the start for many septic system owners, once the inspections begin. “If they have to fix their leach lines, we’re talking big bucks and most people don’t have them,” he said. With Gaines vowing to fight legislation that initiated the inspection plan and the Placer County Board of Supervisors joining other rural county panels in condemning the Water Resources Control Board proposal, the state has decided to have another look. It has postponed a Sacramento hearing and asked staff to revise the proposal in light of protests. The Journal’s Gus Thomson can be reached at