Strand addresses wastewater deal

Rebecca Neipp

News Review Staff Writer

Strand addresses  wastewater dealConcerns relating to the lengthy, behind-the-scenes, negotiations between the city and the Navy on the new wastewater treatment facility were raised by Stan Rajtora at a previous meeting of the Ridgecrest City Council. When his remarks were not addressed in that forum, he brought them to the News Review.

In the Sept. 13 edition, the News Review reported that the city had a wastewater fund in excess of $27 million that had been collected on since 2013. Seven years into the negotiation process, the draft document under consideration by the Navy in Washington, D.C., had still not been released to the public. And the new facility is not projected to be completed for least five years.

City Manager Ron Strand noted that he had addressed those concerns on multiple occasions with Rajtora, then sat down to address them with the News Review. He challenged several points made by Rajtora and also defended withholding the public document until the agreement has been settled.

“The bottom line is that negotiations are for the benefit of the taxpayer,” said Strand. “I don’t want to have to be negotiating this on two fronts.”

The current wastewater facility is located on Navy land, but has been operated by the city since the 1970s. The costs are shared between residential and Navy users, though one of Rajtora’s primary concerns has been that the Navy has not historically borne its share of the costs.

“Stan is right about a couple of things, at least historically, but those issues are being addressed in the new agreement,” said Strand.

When the city first took over the facility in 1976, the legal terms were interpreted in a way that gave the Navy a lower rate for its portion of the use.

“With the new agreement, the Navy will be considered as just another ratepayer.” Although the rate formula includes considerations for volume and level of treatment, Strand said, the Navy will pay on the exact same scale that other customers will be charged.

Strand said it is in the best interest of the majority of users to continue operating on Navy property. The location on the installation has built-in security and enough distance from municipal users that the odors related to processing are not an issue for most residential customers.

The city also needs to add only five acres to the existing 360-acre footprint. “We are looking at a 50-year easement,” he said. For a while, both the existing and the new plants will operate side-by-side.

“After the new one is up and running, the old one will be dismantled. One of the components of the agreement deals with who is responsible for which of those components when that time comes.”

Strand said that although negotiations did indeed start in 2012, he got involved only two years ago.

“We have been working diligently on this, not just at the city, but with [House Republican Leader Kevin] McCarthy’s office and with the undersecretary of the Navy. There were a lot of mandatory clauses in the original agreement that had to be negotiated so that we could make it work. That process took a chunk of time.”

The “payment” for the easement agreement, which amounts to a long-term lease, will be made in a water appropriation, said Strand.

The wastewater treatment facility processes some 2,700 acre feet of water effluent (water that goes down toilets and drains) each year. The Navy will get a portion of that recycled water to irrigate the golf course. “I’m told the golf course would not be in existence without that,” Strand said.

Rajtora had also expressed concern that the new facility would not be introducing tertiary treatment into the process — a practice that reduces local reliance on new groundwater by using recycled water for some irrigation and injection projects.

Strand said that the new process will treat and re-inject between 1,000 acre feet and 2,000 acre feet per year into the water table.

“That number assumes that we are still using the current 6,200 acre feet per year distributed by the IWV Water District,” said Strand.

“Even if we reduce our water use, though, we could be putting upward of 25 to 33 percent of our water use back into play. If you look at the costs of importing water, that could be a significant benefit to our valley.”

Strand also defended the establishment of the robust reserves in the wastewater fund.

“That $27 million represents a substantial portion of our down payment on the new facility. The more money we put down, the less we borrow. The less we borrow, the less we pay on debt service.”

Strand said he hopes to bring the tentative agreement to the Infrastructure Committee within the next few months, then back to the council shortly thereafter.

Story First Published: 2019-09-27