The high cost of protecting non-native microscopic fathead minnows is going to bankrupt California.
Atwater - now the fourth Golden State city to start down the bankruptcy path this year - is being torpedoed in part due to the growing strength of the Environmental Perfection movement.
Cost overruns for a $90 million state mandated state-of-the-art wastewater treatment plant are hitting the 28,000 residents hard in the Merced County community. It doesn’t help that the Atwater City Council committed the cardinal sin of dipping into enterprise funds for services such as water, sewer, and garbage to pay general fund bills. So after budget cuts and laying off 16 percent of its workforce Atwater is poised to follow Stockton, San Bernardino, and Mammoth Lakes into federal bankruptcy court. Yes, generous pension benefits are the proverbial 1,000-pound albatross around Atwater’s neck just like they are in Stockton and San Bernardino. (Mammoth Lake’s bankruptcy is driven by a massive lawsuit ruling that their insurance carriers aren’t obligated to cover.)
But equally problematic are costly and expensive state mandates that have marginal benefit.
No one wants to pollute water with insufficiently treated wastewater. And it is all too obvious that the San Joaquin River and other waterways need to be cleaned up and have healthy flows restored.
You don’t, however, need to pay for a battering ram when a simple and relatively inexpensive hammer can do the trick.
What Atwater and other cities are now dealing with is overkill state-imposed standards driven in part by Southern California urban water interests aimed at improving the quality of water that makes it into the San Joaquin River and ultimately into Los Angeles faucets.
Manteca had the dubious privilege of being the one of the two first municipal wastewater treatment plant snagged in massive regulatory overkill.
For decades, Manteca met or exceeded state standards in routine compliance tests of treated wastewater. Then in June 1997 the standards were changed due in part to Los Angeles area powers that be worried that they might be taking delivery of north state water that wasn’t as clean as possible forcing them to do additional treatment.
Manteca passed all of the new tests except one - the bioassay test that measures the impact on river fish.
Up until then the state had cities like Manteca use native juvenile trout that were between 15 and 30 days old. Routine tests of putting them in treated municipal wastewater showed that Manteca was not harming fish.
But that all changed in June 1997. The state started requiring non- native minnow larval. Not only were they not native, but they are extremely small compared to 15 day old trout. That triggered a higher kill rate in the lab sending Manteca out-of-compliance.
The treatment plant upgrade expansion was originally expected to cost $40 million prior to that test. It skyrocketed $10 million overnight due to additional changes needed to make sure microscopic non-native minnows could have a minimal kill rate swimming in a tank filled with treated Manteca municipal wastewater.
Manteca - on the naive assumption that if you could find a way that was just as effective to protect the fish and do so inexpensively that the state would listen - had staff engineers and consultants explore other options.
They came up with a diffuser that would cost $450,000 to install at the water outlet. Essentially, it was a perforated pipe on the river bottom. The solution was devised after discovering - and repeatedly verifying - that the ammonia problem in the river the state was targeting existed only within several square feet of the existing release point of the treated water. After that, the ammonia dissipates.
State engineers were intrigued and wanted more thorough tests. But then the bureaucrats - pressured by environmentalists and south state water interests - pulled the plug on pursuing the option.
Of course, the $40 million project that jumped to $50 million ultimately exceeded $60 million to meet the state requirements that may be entirely superfluous.
Just how bad was this initial decision? Then State Senator Mike Machado was able to get his colleagues to include in the 2000 water bond eventually approved by state voters funding for both Manteca and the Southern San Joaquin Valley community of Orange funds to cover part of the cost for the state mandate for the ammonia removal portion of the treatment plant upgrade. It was so obvious that a state regulation and not reality was driving the expense up that there was no opposition to the inclusion in a bond that was supposed to be 100 percent for expanding water sources and flood control. Since then the requirement has spread to other cities without any state funding.
Atwater’s financial ill health can’t be attributed exclusively to draconian state mandates. But they do play a big role in driving up the cost of doing business in California whether it is for local government or the private sector.
As you’re struggling to make ends meet, be happy knowing that the monthly sewer bill you pay helps make sure non-native minnow fish - that when a dozen are placed end-to-end will span a diameter of a nickel - will be able to survive when you flush the toilet.
This column is the opinion of managing editor, Dennis Wyatt, and does not necessarily represent the opinion of The Bulletin or Morris Newspaper Corp. of CA. He can be contacted at email@example.com or 209-249-3519.