During my 30-plus years with the city of Watsonville, the City Council and city staff have always been proud of the fact that we have by far the lowest utility rates in the county; our combined rates are about half the cost of most of our neighboring jurisdictions. We have been able to achieve this through very lean staffing levels, prudent fiscal management, and by effectively maintaining equipment and facilities so that they last as long as possible.
However, there are limits to how far we can extend the life of our facilities, and, like many communities across the nation, we have realized that many of our facilities are becoming too old to repair and will soon need to be replaced. The city must also address the additional costs associated with a new residential greenwaste (yardwaste) collection program that is required to comply with the latest state waste diversion regulations. This new greenwaste program collection will begin later this year and will provide a convenient new service for residential customers.
The American Water Works Association recently completed a study that showed utility infrastructure across the country is beginning to fail, and it will cost approximately $1.5 trillion to replace our nationís aging water and sewer pipes. While I believe that Watsonville has done a better job at maintaining its infrastructure than many other communities, we still must address the issue of replacing aging facilities. More than half of our wells, reservoirs, water lines and sewer lines are more than 50 years old. Our oldest water storage reservoir was first built in 1890 and our Corralitos water-treatment plant was constructed in 1930. Both of these facilities are still in use today.
It costs between $250,000-$500,000 per mile to replace water and sewer lines. Watsonville has approximately 175 miles of water mains and 125 miles of sewer mains in its water distribution and sewer collection systems, respectively. Current utility rates only generate enough funding to replace about 0.5 miles of water and sewer mains per year. The math is pretty straight forward: at our current rate of funding, it would take about 400 years to replace all of our water and sewer mains. Itís pretty clear that we need to increase the rate of main replacement and unfortunately, this will require additional funding.
Watsonville also continues to face significant changes in state solid waste regulations. The state has mandated that we increase the diversion of garbage from our landfills to 70 percent over the next several years. To achieve compliance with that requirement, it is necessary to implement a number of new programs, including the aforementioned residential greenwaste collection program and additional commercial recycling efforts. While the new greenwaste collection and other programs will increase costs, these programs will also conserve valuable landfill capacity thereby extending the life of the cityís landfill.
That is especially important since the cityís landfill is expected to reach capacity within the next 7 to 10 years and closing it in accordance with state regulations will cost approximately $5 million. It is true that the funding of all these new programs and projects will require an increase in solid waste rates. However, even with an increase in rates, our new yard waste collection service and other recycling programs will provide the opportunity for many residential and business customers to switch to smaller containers and actually pay lower garbage rates than they pay today.
Investing in our utilities infrastructure is an investment in our future. It protects the reliability of our water supply and the health and safety of our community and our environment. If we allow our utility systems to deteriorate, we are simply pushing off these costs to the next generation. When infrastructure reaches the end of its useful life and pipelines begin to fail more frequently, the community is burdened with decreased utility system reliability, reduced fire protection, and potential damages to businesses and homes caused by sewer back-ups and flooding. And itís important to note that the cost of emergency repairs is always significantly greater than that of planned replacement projects.
The city is committed to providing the best value to our community and prudent investment in our infrastructure is the most responsible choice our community can make. And even after the rate increases that are necessary to fund this investment, Watsonville will continue to have what are by far the lowest utility rates in the county.
David Koch is Watsonville's Public Works and Utilities director
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