May 12, 2008

California Sewer Authority Faces Rate Hikes for Overdue Upgrades

Officials project South Bayside System Authority wastewater bills will double within the next 10 years

Sewer rates for customers of the South Bayside System Authority are expected to double in the coming decade as the agency upgrades its aging system to the tune of hundreds of million dollars, the San Mateo Daily News reported.

The board of the authority, which provides sewer service to Belmont, San Carlos, Redwood City and the West Bay Sanitary District, approved an upgrade package totaling $339 million May 8.

Most wastewater infrastructure was installed in the 1960s and '70s, the agency said, and needs to be replaced in order to prevent failures and spills into the Bay.

"This is not something you put in the drawer and say, 'This'll go away, and this'll be fine,'" said Bob Grassilli, a San Carlos City Council member who sits on the authority's board. "We haven't had any problems, and we don't want any problems."

Residents will have to foot the bill for 131 projects over the next 10 years, the paper reported. That is because the authority's members decided to keep rates as low as possible rather than implement gradual maintenance rate hikes, officials said. Though individual cities set sewer rates, General Manager Dan Child said $31 and $36 per month is a typical rate for residents served by the authority.

Rates will at least double by the time the work is done, Child predicted.

"From day one, there should have been money set apart to start paying for these replacements down the road," Child said. "Now it's gotten to the point that these plants are wearing out. And we're not alone."

Agencies all around the country also had kept low rates and are paying for it now, he noted.

San Jose, for example, needs about $900 million in wastewater improvements, Child said. And Houston will spend $1.6 billion on its wastewater infrastructure over the next eight years.

The largest amount the authority will spend, $125 million, will be on the force main, a large pipe that extends from Marsh Road in Menlo Park to the authority's treatment plant in Redwood Shores, the paper reported.

Pump stations in Menlo Park, Redwood City and San Carlos that are 40 to 50 years old will require about $48 million in upgrades to prevent the failures that now occur frequently and threaten to cause spills.

Other costs the agency faces include $15 million for technology upgrades to increase automation, $15 million for electrical upgrades and $27 million to fix tanks used for processing waste, according to the paper.

Cities will need to educate residents about why their bills will be going up for years to come, Grassilli said. "If we don't explain the rate increase, I don't think they'll be understanding at all.”