Mail-in ballots already arriving for Davis water vote

dvsmith@sacbee.comFebruary 28, 2013 

The issue has filled the local newspaper's editorial pages and both sides have their share of heavyweights in their corners. Add the city's closure this week of a key water well and Davis' contentious water debate continues to simmer just days before its March 5 election for Measure I.

Davis voters in the special mail-only election are deciding whether the city moves forward with the estimated $245 million Surface Water Project – the plan to provide Sacramento River water to Davis and Woodland in 2016 to supplement what the cities pull from their aging wells.

A yes vote on Measure I gives the city the go-ahead to work with Woodland. A no vote tells Davis leaders to consider other options.

Opponents continue to call for more time. They say the city shouldn't be rushed by Woodland's pressing 2016 clean-water deadlines because Davis' deadlines don't arrive until 2020. They say the plan – and the increased water rates the city is calling for to help fund it – are too costly.

"The city is really trying to change our water system. This is a humongous thing," said Davis attorney and Measure I opponent Michael Harrington. "We're not talking about moving a stop sign. They have to get it right. The message to voters is if you're not sure about the project and you think it's being rushed, you should vote no."

Opponents want Davis leaders to renew talks with West Sacramento to treat and furnish Davis' water supply or craft a regional water solution with West Sacramento, Woodland and UC Davis, instead of the planned water treatment plant and pipeline at the 17,300-acre Conaway Ranch on the Sacramento River.

Harrington said opponents are wary of the motivations behind the proposed project, calling it an expensive pitch to attract new development to the steadfastly slow-growth city.

Those who support Measure I include Davis and regional leaders, building trades advocates California Alliance for Jobs and the Plumbers & Pipefitters Local 447.

"We think the need for river water is contrived," Harrington said. "Instead of deciding to live within our means, (proponents) want to grab river water. It's completely contrary to the Davis tradition."

The city's decision this week to shut down Well 30, the west side well that produces more than 10 percent of Davis' water supply, left Harrington with more suspicions, calling the closure a "scare tactic" to sway voters.

Davis water officials recorded high levels of manganese in Well 30 water. At 1,700 parts per billion, the readings far exceeded the maximum 50 parts per billion allowed in drinking water, leading to the well's closure.

Readings were even higher in later tests, said principal city engineer Dianna Jensen. She said costs to treat and restart the well could reach $2.6 million.

The measure's supporters say delaying a decision is too risky, carrying with it the specter of fast approaching state clean-water deadlines and higher water rates and other costs to replace old and failing water infrastructure.

"There's going to be a cost for not doing the project," said Elaine Roberts Musser, chairwoman of the city's Water Advisory Committee and a leading proponent of Measure I. She said ratepayers could expect sharp increases in rates to pay for infrastructure.

"There's a whole host of costs and problems," Musser said. "You throw good money after bad by putting off the inevitable. The inevitable will cost more later than now."

Meanwhile, officials from the Woodland-Davis Clean Water Agency, the joint powers authority representing Woodland, Davis and the University of California, Davis, continue to press forward.

Woodland and Davis city councilmembers earlier this month met with federal agencies and lawmakers to make their bid for millions of dollars in federal funding for the joint water project's estimated $42 million intake facility on the Sacramento River.

Whether those meetings have any effect on the outcome is unclear. About 7,000 votes have already been mailed to elections officials.

While Harrington was optimistic that the measure will be defeated, Musser was reluctant to speculate on the outcome.

"Now it's up to the citizens," Musser said. "They're the ultimate deciders."

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