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Salt: The next sewer rate buster?
State wants less salt in treated water
Manteca wastewater treatment plant operator Benjamin Abulencia checks on the underground workings of the municipal plant. - photo by HIME ROMERO
Salt could do to your monthly sewer bill what ammonia did – raise it considerably.

Manteca is in the process of re-licensing the municipal wastewater treatment plant with the Central Valley Regional Water Control Board. The city is almost through with a $61.3 million treatment plan upgrade and expansion project that started in earnest in December 2003 after six years of struggling to devise a way to deal with a state demand that additional ammonia be removed from treated water before it is returned to the San Joaquin River.

Prior to that, the city had met all state ammonia removal standards. Now tightening standards are threatening to force the city to add more costly treatment to reduce levels of salt before it is returned to the Delta. Manteca isn’t alone in being targeted.  Lodi, Stockton, and Tracy – all with sewer treatment plants that return water to the San Joaquin River and ultimately the Delta – are facing the same tough new standards.

Public Works Director Mark Houghton said the municipal staff is working with state officials to determine if there isn’t a more reasonable approach to addressing the salt issue. Human waste has salt in it but as Houghton notes what the cities add to the river is minuscule compared to what is already flowing downstream. Even so, the state is being driven by concern that salt is damaging aquatic life – both fish and vegetation – in and around the Delta.

While a lot of other areas also contribute to the problem, Manteca and its neighbors are at ground zero.

“We’re the most visible,” Houghton said noting the proximity to the Delta.

While Houghton noted ultimately the city must comply with whatever standard is adopted, they are trying to find ways to “make it more reasonable” to keep costs down.

The current plant expansion was designed to add salt removal to the process so there won’t have to be a massive physical component added. The extremely expensive salt removal process – and the equipment needed for that - would have to be added to the plant.

The re-licensing of the wastewater treatment plant is just one challenge Manteca’s public works staff is facing in the tightest budget year in at least 25 years.

The city is faced with trying to find ways to do more with less staff necessitated by drops in property and sales tax.

“We have a lot of hardworking, dedicated people in public works,” Houghton said. “They are trying to find ways to keep servcie levels up.”

It’s a challenge especially since public works staff faces the prospect of either layoffs or forgoing two back-to-back raises on top of reducing take home pay to cover more retirement costs. That is in addition to a 3.8 percent pay cut they’re taking this year along with other municipal employees through non-paid furlough days.

Water softeners using salt add to the problem
One way ratepayers can help their own cause is to avoid using water softeners that employ salt and instead opt for those that use filters. Houghton believes the state eventually may outlaw water softening systems that use salt. Until then, every pound of salt used in water softeners makes the problem worse.

A single-family household pays $43.10 today for sewer. It will go to $43.30 on Jan. 1, 2010, then go to $46.55 on Jan. 1, 2011, then go to $48.30 on Jan. 1, 2012, and then hit $51.25 per month on Jan. 1, 2013.

The five-step annual jump reflects a rate increase over the five years in excess of 50 percent. The money goes for maintenance, operations, and the cost of paying to replacing aging treatment equipment and put in new ammonia removal facilities at the plant. Growth costs are paid by new developments when they connect to the system and “buy in” with hook-up fees.

Personnel are the top cost. Much of that is dictated by state standards on how they want the plant is operated. Labor costs are about $2 million followed by around $1 million in power.

The city is trying to find ways of generating their own power to reign in electricity costs.

They are hoping a co-generation plant that could be pursued by matching federal stimulus money – should Manteca obtain it – would go a long way toward that goal.

The current rate structures include funding for critical pipeline work including the Central Manteca trunk. Several years ago the pipeline was near collapse. The city made emergency repairs to line the pipe to extend its life. The rate increase allocates money to put in a more permanent solution.