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Flushing our future, water & money down the drain

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POSTED September 26, 2013 12:12 a.m.

California’s ultimate water war will start in your bathroom.

It will be over who has rights to what you flush down your toilet, send down your sink drains and dump into the sewer system from your washing machine.

The wastewater under California Water Code Section 1210 is owned by the jurisdiction operating the system that collects and treats it. The owners of treatment plants, though, may not have exclusive rights to the treated effluent or the water released back into a stream or river. Water Code Section 1485 specially allows jurisdictions operating wastewater treatment plants that dump treated effluent into the San Joaquin River or the Delta to take an equal amount of water for sale or other beneficial purposes.

That is exactly what the City of Stockton did a few years ago.

Right now Manteca dumps 6.5 million gallons of treated effluent into the San Joaquin River at a point west of Oakwood Shores. Tests done 12 years ago when the city was in a dispute with a state agency about the level of ammonia removal showed the water coming from the treatment plant was substantially cleaner than the water in the river. In fact, fish flocked to the area where the treated municipal effluent was released back into the river because it was so clean.

The 6.5 million gallons represents 19.8 acre feet of water each day.  Westlands Water District farmers are paying $340 to $370 per acre foot for supplemental contracts for water. If Manteca secured rights to its treated effluent and then sold it on the open market for $300 an acre foot that would yield $2.1 million in a year.

As it stands now Manteca’s treated effluent either flows into San Francisco Bay or into the California Aqueduct for use by Westlands farmers, Bay Area water districts or Southern California interests.

If you aggregate all of the municipalities that release treated effluent that is almost always cleaner than river water back into the San Joaquin you’ve got an awful lot of water. In many cases the water that was put into the wastewater treatment system didn’t come from watersheds. Instead, it was pumped from aquifers.

A large portion of Manteca’s domestic water comes from underground sources.

While any attempts to secure water rights to treated effluent will be met by opposition from the backers of the Twin Tunnels — the Westlands Water District as well as Southern California and Bay Area interests — they would be hard pressed to make a case to derail water rights Manteca may claim to treated water that originally was pumped out of the ground for use and then treated at the wastewater treatment plant.

At best, regional cities such as Manteca securing water rights to the treated effluent will generate money that will keep wastewater treatment costs down for ratepayers. At worst, it would put the region on the offensive in the never-ending California water wars.

The Twin Tunnels, the Peripheral Canal, and a repertoire of other water transport schemes always have been drafted in such a manner that San Joaquin County ends up losing big time.

The Twin Tunnels — when all of the Trojan Horse exterior is peeled back — puts San Joaquin County at risk of losing a third of its agriculture production that serves as the county’s largest employer by far. It also will put pressure on water sources used not only in San Joaquin County but neighboring Stanislaus and Merced counties in terms of keeping court-ordered water levels up in the Delta for fish and the environment.

Taking treated effluent out of the equation of Delta water flows that go to the bay and into aqueducts for use by Southern California and Bay Area interests would have a significant impact on what can be taken from the Sacramento River to bypass the Delta with the Twin Tunnels plan.

It also underscores a basic flaw in the Twin Tunnels plan. It does not address the state as a whole, but instead the water needs of special interests. Granted, those special interests have the majority of the state’s population and biggest farms. But simply being in the majority doesn’t mean the solution they are pursuing ultimately will be the best for California.

For example, if Stockton can essentially repurpose its treated effluent as drinking water, why can’t Los Angeles, the Bay Area and Southern California do the same?

It would certainly be a much more reliable and steady water supply than the solution offered by the Twin Tunnels. It actually develops a new source of water since it is now just dumped into rivers and sent into the ocean.

If California’s leaders won’t look out for the interests of everyone in this state when it comes to water then we need to look out for our own interests or force them to look at the entire picture.

Our treated effluent is our water. But once the Twin Tunnels are built it won’t be as that water and much more will be needed to keep the Delta from turning into a cesspool.

We need to protect our water. Or, at the very least, make those who use it pay for it.

Manteca — and every other city on the San Joaquin River —  needs to secure and protect their treated effluent water rights.



This column is the opinion of executive editor, Dennis Wyatt, and does not necessarily represent the opinion of The Bulletin or Morris Newspaper Corp. of CA.  He can be contacted at dwyatt@mantecabulletin.com or (209) 249-3519.

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