Dunsmuir utility improvements cost estimate: $11.5 million

Ami Ridling

Water and sewer infrastructure degradation was the topic of a lengthy discussion at the Dunsmuir City Council meeting on Dec. 18. Yet perhaps the most daunting detail is the possibility of a monthly rate increase to accommodate the estimated $11.5 million price tag on the proposed utility improvements.

The sewage plant and system improvement costs total $7.5 million, and the water system, plagued by constant leaks, dilapidated pipelines, and inadequate pressure flow, will cost the city an additional $4 million in repairs and replacements. 

To address necessary improvement projects that acting city administrator Alan Harvey described as “long past due,” he presented a detailed action plan to the council.

 The plan includes applying for a grant and loan through the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Rural Development water and waste disposal program, made possible by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA).

If Dunsmuir qualifies for the low-interest $11.5 million loan and grant, then the city could break ground on the projects in 2011.

While the approximate amount of grant money that Dunsmuir could qualify for has not been determined, Harvey said he anticipates that, if awarded, grant funds may cover up to 30 percent of the costs.

The tentative plan includes implementing a multi-year water and sewer rate increase for utility customers, scheduled over a three year period.

For water customers, Dunsmuir city staff estimates a $4 hike beginning in July of 2010. The rate would then be raised by $4 in July of 2011 and again in July of 2012.

The anticipated wastewater fees would increase by $10 per month beginning in July of 2010, followed by an additional $10 increase starting in July of 2011, and a third and final $10 increase in July of 2012.

The city council will hold a public hearing on Feb. 19 to hear public testimony about the proposed rate increases.

The rate hike estimates are based on the worst case scenario – that is, if the city qualifies for the loan but not the grant, Harvey wrote in a memorandum to the city council.

Harvey said he would work with USDA area specialist Kevin DeMers to determine an approximate rate increase schedule to ensure that the revenue from the fee increases will be sufficient to enable the city to begin payments on the loan in 2012.

Under Proposition 218, which gives Californians the right to vote on taxes, if more than 50 percent of Dunsmuir property owners object to the fee increases, then the increases cannot be approved.

Furthermore, “If we do not get the grant or loan, we will rescind the rate increases,” Harvey explained.

In that case, the city would have to identify another method of setting the proposed projects into motion.

All the council members agreed that the utility problems are of immediate concern, though a few wondered how a community like Dunsmuir, which has a median household income of $23,583, can absorb the hefty utility rate increases.

“This is a massive increase,” councilor Kathay Edmondson exclaimed. She asked if the projects could be addressed individually to offset the sudden financial burden. “Can these projects be addressed one at a time?” she asked.

Harvey answered that it is a possibility for projects to be broken into segments and addressed on a smaller scale.

“Let’s talk about the flipside,” said Mayor Peter Arth. “When was the last time the rates were raised?”

“Eight or nine years ago,” answered Harvey.

Councilor Helen Cartwright asked Harvey if additional grant funds from other sources could be sought to cover more than 30 percent of the improvement project costs. 

“This is the best one I see that exists today,” Harvey answered, referring to the USDA ARRA funds. “If we take a crack at it, maybe we can make it happen.”

Meanwhile, the longer these infrastructure improvement projects are delayed, the more expensive they will become, said council member Mario Rubino. “There is plenty of evidence that we have been ignoring these problems. If we do not deal with this water and sewage issue, then it will get really expensive, really fast.”

While the city accepted a bid as a consent agenda item on a long-awaited $252,000 project to install an automatic chlorination and de-chlorination system at the Dunsmuir wastewater treatment plant, which will eliminate effluent discharges with excessive chlorine, projects of equal importance are on the horizon.

Wastewater system improvement plans

Root intrusion, broken pipes, capacity limitations, and grade problems have all conspired to wreak havoc on Dunsmuir’s waste collection system.

The original downtown area sewer collection system was constructed in the early 1900s. These sewers were last replaced in 1975, though the original laterals (pipes) to the dwelling units were not replaced as part of the project. Failing to replace those laterals at that time is a major contributing factor to the system’s current problems.

Specifically, the engineer’s report points to “excessive infiltration and inflow” (I&I). This occurs when groundwater enters a sewer system through broken pipes and defective pipe joints, causing sewage overflows within the collection and treatment system.

As a result of this common problem, Harvey later stated that Dunsmuir has come close to being fined for violating health, safety, and environmental standards set forth by the California Regional Water Quality Control Board.

I&I reduction and collection system projects are planned in the following high priority streets and surrounding neighborhoods: Castle Ave., Willow St., Vernie St., Edyth St., Scherrer Ave., Dunsmuir Ave., Cedar St., Shasta Ave., Branstetter St., Grover St., Rose Ave., Stagecoach Rd., Oak St., and Pine St.

The planned improvements for the wastewater treatment plant include a new secondary clarifier (a solids removal apparatus), a new head works comminutor, the addition of an emergency generator, and the replacement of six motor starters and the scum baffle in the aerated grit tank.

Water system improvement plans

On the other end of the spectrum, many water infrastructure improvements are listed in the Master Water Plan.

The water distribution system near Dunsmuir Elementary School is in need of renovation.

Currently, the water pressure limitation reduces available water flow, which would jeopardize the community and the school in the event of a fire.

In addition, the water pressure is not adequate to provide irrigation water to the playgrounds and athletic fields. The school currently uses a booster pump for irrigation.

Improvement plans for this particular project include extending a new water main along Siskiyou Ave., through the school parking lot, and back to Siskiyou Ave. New fire hydrants would also be installed in front of the school.

Next on the to-do list is the construction of a new downtown storage tank on the Dunsmuir High School property near the existing tank. The existing tank is too low in elevation to provide storage during peak demand periods.

Also, the plan includes replacing the steel pipeline that runs between the high school tank and downtown. The current pipeline recently ruptured, requiring installation of a series of repair clamps to stop the leak.

Blackberry Hill water system improvements are also on the list. This project includes replacing water mains along Scherrer Ave. due to low water pressure which could jeopardize the community in the event of a fire.

The existing water mains on Dunsmuir Ave. and Prospect Ave. are due to be replaced as a result of a series of major leaks.