Fearing higher costs, Santa Rosa appeals wastewater ruling

SANTA ROSA -- Santa Rosa is appealing new rules regulating the discharge of treated wastewater from its Laguna Wastewater Treatment Plant, arguing that guidelines issued last November could undermine existing efforts to recycle the vast majority of treated waste for agriculture and electricity and ultimately lead to higher ratepayer costs.

The city received formal notification this month that the State Water Resources Control Board, a high-level water regulator, had received the petition following initial filing in December. The document contends in part that the board's North Coast division went too far in setting a "no net loading" policy regarding the release of phosphorus into the sensitive habitat of the Laguna de Santa Rosa.

It also questions measures that the city claims would make the treated wastewater it sells to farmers for irrigation less cost-competitive versus potable water, noting that those costs currently stand at around 5 percent less.

"Our recycled water system in general is renowned in the state," said David Guhin, the city's utilities director. "We're very concerned that these additional restrictions are going to discourage people from using that product."

The new permit, effective as of Feb. 1, requires that the city take measures elsewhere in the watershed to lower the overall input of phosphorus into the Laguna. The arrangement allows the city to "bank" those credits for future use, a system that Mr. Guhin said is the first of its kind in California.

Yet concern remains for the long-term practicality of such an arrangement, as well as the city's opinion that a small amount of discharge into the Laguna would have no significant effect, he said.

"We've hit all the low-hanging fruit, so we're worried about finding projects going forward," Mr. Guhin said. He described current projects focused on runoff from roads and dairies, and that "as the projects run out and we have to spend more to offset a pound of phosphorous, it's going to start affecting ratepayers."

Mr. Guhin estimated the current cost of mitigation credits for one ton of discharged phosphorous at around $30, amounting to around $100,000 per year. That number could balloon if mitigation sources within the watershed become harder to find, he said.

The petition claims that the city acted in good faith by investing five years and approximately $1.5 million in those mitigation efforts. Yet it argues against the policy in general, vying instead for a reasonable limit that would eventually follow a "total daily nutrient load" limit for the Laguna that is currently under study.

"We feel there is an acceptable level," Mr. Guhin said.

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