After a half-dozen meetings over four months, the Community Services District board of directors has approved a plan for millions of dollars in options to deal with wastewater as the community grows.
CSD policy requires developers to pay their own way, but the realities of the highly regulated world of wastewater management mean everyone has a monetary stake in the decisions that are made now and 10 years from now.
The board's plan -- called the Wastewater Facilities Expansion and Financing Plan -- acknowledges uncertainties about the course of the community's growth and tries to offer flexibility to deal with changing requirements for wastewater use and disposal. It evaluates existing storage, disposal and treatment facilities and identifies the additional facilities that are needed.
The final version of the plan is available here.
It divides development into self-contained phases, starting with projects that are in the approval process or have been approved, and ending with a phase that proposes expanding the boundaries of Rancho Murieta and the CSD service area.
Flexibility is needed because the community has learned that relying on one option to dispose of its wastewater is risky. That's the hard lesson of the past few years, and it has cost the CSD money and shaken its standing in the community.
The notion of irrigating two thirsty golf courses with highly treated reclaimed wastewater -- a founding principle of the community, seen as practical and eco-friendly in the 1970s -- was tested in 2003, when compliance with a new regulation delayed deliveries of recycled water for much of the irrigation season.
The resulting carried-over storage in the ponds at the wastewater treatment plant became one of the triggers for the cease and desist order the Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board issued last year and raised questions about storage capacity, especially in light of development proposals. The wastewater facilities plan is a requirement of the order.
The CSD board approved the plan at its July 25 meeting.
On July 30, the CSD board approved spending $315,394 for an irrigation project that should significantly reduce the amount of wastewater stored at the treatment plant.
The 90-day spray field irrigation project will use recycled wastewater to irrigate about 90 acres of pasture land for cattle at the Van Vleck ranch, just east of Murieta. The county Board of Supervisors approved the project in July as an emergency response to drought conditions in the county.
A temporary, above-grade installation will be used for the project and remain in place after the 90-day project.
In addition to the emergency use, the CSD is moving ahead with the environmental review and permitting process required for a temporary spray field that can be used on the property through 2009 to "safeguard against any other build-up of storage," General Manager Ed Crouse said.
In approving the spending, some CSD directors were unhappy that the irrigation system won't be completed before mid-August and urged staff to monitor the vendor's installation schedule closely since the irrigation season ends Oct. 30.
The vendor began work on the installation Aug. 3, the day after the regional board approved the emergency project.
A 150-acre permanent spray field facility is expected to replace the temporary one and the pipes will be installed below ground, Crouse said. The permanent spray field would be used to dispose of wastewater produced in the first phase of new development, and it would also accommodate reductions in the Country Club's use of recycled water, he said.
The developers for the Phase 1 projects -- Lakeview and Riverview on the South, the Residences of Murieta Hills East and West and the Retreat projects on the North, and Murieta Gardens, a commercial and residential development proposed for the area south of Highway 16 -- are currently negotiating terms for a financing and services agreement with the CSD for their infrastructure needs. The spray field disposal option is part of these negotiations.
The five projects that make up the plan's Phase 1 have a total of 700 units, 50 of which are available for public uses such as a school or fire station. The timeline for Phase 1 is zero to five years.
Although development opponents view the current storage issues at the wastewater treatment plant as proof the community is already overdeveloped, Jack H. Grossman, vice president of HydroScience, said the storage issue has been misunderstood. Once the short-term storage problem has been resolved, there will be sufficient storage through Phase 1, provided the storage ponds contain no more than 170 acre feet of wastewater at the end of the irrigation season, he said.
The ponds at the treatment plant are required to accommodate a 365-day, 100-year storm event while maintaining two feet of clearance between the water and the top of the ponds.
Storage becomes a factor in accommodating Phases 2 and 3.
As defined, Phase 2 has a total of 1,000 units. It includes the remaining undeveloped property on the North -- the Pension Trust Fund for Operating Engineers properties, the apartment site located behind the Rancho Murieta Association Building, and the former school site on Escuela Drive. The plan gives a five- to 10-year estimate for development.
Phase 3 is the Murieta West Planning Area. This 600-unit project proposes developing property outside the boundaries of Rancho Murieta, the county's urban services boundary, and the CSD service area, as well as some property within these limits. The estimated timeline is 10 years and beyond.
Long-standing CSD policy places the responsibility for financing on the developer. "The district's policy since 1990 has been that all new development funds 100 percent of the cost of the infrastructure needed," Crouse said at the first workshop for the wastewater facilities plan. "The money's going to be in the bank before we start construction."
The CSD won't raise rates, sell bonds or take money from the district, and the infrastructure has to be in place before the CSD commits to providing water and sewer service, he said.
The four alternatives the report considers are:
Spray field irrigation
"Purple pipe" landscape irrigation for homes
Obtaining a National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permit to discharge treated wastewater into the Cosumnes River
Connecting to the Sacramento regional sewer 13 miles away
"The solution has to be a combination. It's a timing issue. What can we do now that expends the least amount of resources and gives us the most flexibility later?" Grossman said at a workshop.
For Phase 1, Grossman suggested achieving flexibility by acquiring spray field acreage and investigating an NPDES permit.
"It may prove to be that the conditions attached to a permit are so onerous that we don't want to be involved ... but if we don't run it to ground we've potentially missed an opportunity," he said.
According to the facilities plan, Phase 1's disposal needs can be met with 135 acres of spray fields at an estimated cost of $8.5 million, which includes $3 million in plant upgrades for disinfecting wastewater and improving sewage processing.
At $750,000 to $2.5 million, the NPDES permit was the least expensive option. It also has the potential to eliminate the need for additional wastewater storage for Phases 2 and 3.
The wastewater would be treated to standards set by the permit so it could be discharged to the river during the wet season instead of being stored for use in the dry months.
Some of the directors seemed to think the permit would protect the CSD against further fines and cease and desist orders, but the opposite could be true.
"There is a potential for significant fines ... that's always hanging over your head," Grossman said, cautioning that the regulations could become more stringent over the years.
Mandatory minimum fines under the NPDES permit are $3,000 per occurrence, and there is the potential for lawsuits, Crouse said.
The permit can impose stringent water quality requirements, necessitating expensive plant upgrades, Grossman said. "It's a very complex issue and you really don't know where you are until you see the draft permit. ... Sometimes ... you've got to put out better wastewater than drinking water."
Neighboring rancher Jay Schneider spoke in opposition to the permit at a workshop in July.
"This is really, really bad policy," he told the CSD board. Schneider said the community's water rights permit requires that reclaimed water be used "in lieu of" water from other sources to benefit everyone who relies on the river for water. He also disagreed with irrigating land that wouldn't otherwise receive water, and supported using recycled water for crops instead of pastures. Schneider raised this objection when the CSD went through the approval process for the drought emergency spray fields.
The other disposal option considered -- a connection to the Sacramento regional sewer -- requires installing 13 miles of pipe to reach the closest connection point. Since the project had to be done all at once, the $28.6 million cost wasn't scalable, and only dry weather flow capacity was offered. The alternative was removed from further consideration for these and other reasons.
Although some directors regarded securing an NPDES permit as a replacement for spray fields, Grossman advised keeping the spray fields "to address the reasonable safeguards and redundancy that we want to build into the project...."
The directors voted at the July 25 meeting to spend up to $80,800 in consulting fees to explore the NPDES permit. The process is expected to take a year or more.
An option that gained momentum over the course of the workshops was Title 22 landscape irrigation, the "purple pipe" solution that uses recycled wastewater instead of potable water to irrigate home landscaping.
The facilities plan considers the cost of getting recycled water to new development, but the cost of providing distribution within the subdivision through a parallel delivery system is left to the developer.
The plan states that using recycled water "is not practical or cost effective in the case of certain developments. ... Title 22 landscape irrigation could be a beneficial use of the recycled water for the later phases of the new development at Rancho Murieta, but is not practicable or even feasible for Phase 1."
Out of a total of 700 units for Phase 1, the plan considers only the 253 units of the Riverview and Lakeview subdivisions on the South for Title 22 landscape irrigation because of their proximity to the golf course and a delivery system for recycled water. The cost would be $28,460 per home, a total of $7.3 million. On the North, the Retreat projects won't have yards that require extensive landscape irrigation, and the Residences of Murieta Hills East and West, at the western edge of the community, are far from recycled water piping and pumping facilities.
The plan estimates recycled water would work for 700 of the 1,000 units in Phase 2 and all 600 in Phase 3. The entire cost is estimated at $30.2 million for tank storage, pumping and piping for the 1,553 units.
Besides the capital investment for the developers, there's an operational cost for the CSD going forward to "do the right thing," as some put it at the meetings.
The plan estimates a Title 22 landscape irrigation program would take three or more additional staff members for public outreach and education, inspections and monitoring.
Runoff from this approach would violate the CSD's zero-discharge permit and could force the district into a NPDES permit.
Since about half the community's water goes to keep landscaping green, and the demand is highest during the dry months, substituting recycled water for potable water would benefit lake levels and conserve fresh water.
John Sullivan, a former CSD director who represents the Phase 3 development, Murieta West, was an active participant at the workshops as well as CSD committee and board meetings. He has urged the board to adopt a policy requiring Title 22 landscape irrigation for every phase of development and he has provided them with his own written analysis of the benefits.
Sullivan gave a 20-minute presentation of his views of the facilities plan at a CSD meeting in July. He stated that the savings in potable water could eliminate the need for the last phase of the water treatment plant. Given the current fragmented state of development in Murieta, that could turn out to be a multi-million-dollar savings for the final developer.
The first developers would also have to install some of the "backbone" infrastructure for recycled water distribution.
Director Bob Kjome said he thought the board was in favor of Title 22 irrigation, but it offered more cost benefit in Phases 2 and 3. He wanted to look into the cost of equipping Phase 1 so that homes could be hooked up to the system when later phases of development provided the necessary infrastructure.
"The benefit of using less water and getting rid of wastewater is a win-win situation for the community as a whole," he said.