City Forced to Drain Water Reserve Fund of $4 Million

Residents got involved when the water was turning up brown in color and they started to complain to the city. Photo by Harry Yadev

A problem over a year ago with discolored water caused by an urgent state requirement that forced South Pasadena to blend its water supplies has ended up costing the city about $4 million in water treatment systems that was pulled from its emergency reserve fund, leaving it nearly depleted.

The city was forced to install an expensive carbon-based water treatment system because of new state-mandated requirements that ended up costing $5,806,131.18, according to a report presented to the City Council at its March 20 meeting. The water fund is derived from fees paid by users. City officials said there are no plans of raising rates at this time, even though the reserve fund is nearly depleted. Officials are just hopeful there is not another unanticipated water issue on the horizon.

Moreover, the council voted 5-0 to send a letter to the state explaining the financial hardship caused by the expedited requirement, which some said was “totally unnecessary.” Although the council was not expecting any action from the state, they said it was important to officially go-on-the-record and memorialize the financial hardship caused by the unfunded mandate.

The water situation actually began in July of 2017 when the state adopted the new regulation for 1,2,3-Trichloropropane (1,2,3-TCP) Maximum Contamination Level (MCL) of five parts per trillion (ppt) which took effect in December, 2017, according to a staff report presented to the council.

“In preparation for this new regulation, the city engaged STANTEC, a consulting firm on November 1, 2017, to design a water treatment system for Wilson Reservoir,” the staff report states. “Prior to the adoption of the regulation there was no MCL requirement in California. At that time, the water produced from Wilson Reservoir had reached a 1,2,3-TCP level that exceeded the newly established regulation of 5 ppt MCL. As a result, all public water systems purveyors had to submit samples in compliance with this new regulation by the end of the first quarter of 2018 (March 30, 2018). Since this was not enough time to install a system to meet the newly established regulations, the city obtained a permit from the SWRCB (State Water Resources Control Board) to blend the city well water (five percent) with surface water purchased from the Metropolitan Water District (MWD) in order to meet the new standards. The reduced well production combined with increased purchased water from MWD resulted in significant costs and water quality issues.”

Since January of last year, when certain wells serving as South Pasadena’s primary water source became out of compliance with the new mandate, the city had to dilute its water by introducing into it surface water from MWD. The MWD water supply is an approved water source and South Pasadena’s back-up water supply, according to city officials.

At the time of the discoloration, So Pas City Manager Stephanie DeWolfe explained the problem this way.

“The city has used this interconnection numerous times and has not seen these issues in the past,” DeWolfe said. “The larger volume of inflow in the system is creating a problem that could not be anticipated. The change in color and odor is due to nitrification in the water and water chemistry makeup. Water is initially yellow and if left that way will turn brown as there is more reaction with iron in the pipes.”

The city at the time installed a temporary carbon-based system to eliminate the discoloration.

Again, DeWolfe last year explained the process: “Water blending will no longer be required when the city has completed construction of a new well treatment facility that will remove TCP from local water sources. The construction is being expedited and is anticipated to be completed by the end of 2018.”

Meanwhile, City Councilmembers at the March 20 meeting wanted the state letter to not only indicate the $5.8 million spent on installing the new system but the more than 2,000 hours city staff spent dealing with the compliance issues as well as the numerous complaints about the water.

“The bad news is this has caused our reserves in our water revenue fund to take a hit,” Councilmember Diana Mahmud said during the March 20 meeting. “That is one definitely bad aspect to this and perhaps this should be added to the letter that the fact we were given no notice and we had no time to submit an application for a loan or a grant.” The city did receive a $589,000 federal grant to cover some of the costs.

According to the SWRCB, 1,2,3-TCP is a “chlorinated hydrocarbon with high chemical stability…a manmade chemical found at industrial or hazardous waste sites.” Its presence in drinking water sources, the site continues, “is attributed to various industrial and historic pesticide uses.” 1,2,3-TCP has been identified as a “likely human carcinogen,” according to the Board.

Councilmember Dr. Richard Schneider said the expedited requirement was not necessary and has caused an unwarranted financial burden on the city.

“There was all the staff time spent dealing with customer complaints from the discolored water and that was because of the rapid switch we had to make,” Schneider said during the meeting. “The thing I think that is so outrageous that ties into this short-time span that they allowed us, is that there was minimal risk. They’re talking about parts per trillion. Only two states in the whole country recognize this as a hazard. Nobody has ever gotten cancer from parts per trillion, I guarantee you. It was outrageous that they should take that position and not give us nine months to a year to do it … and there might have been other ways to do this more cheaply and better. So I think those point should be emphasized. That the timing was outrageously short. Risk was minimal and it caused all sorts of problems including the complaints about water quality from residents because of the discoloration.”

Schneider graduated from Yale University and Case Western Reserve University where he obtained his medical degree, according to the city’s website. Schneider also is a diplomate of the American Board of Pathology and has been a partner of the Clinical Laboratory Medical Group since 1979. He is a member of the College of American Pathologist.

Former Review Editor Harry Yadav contributed to this article