Tackling the basics in Dunsmuir

Tim Holt

Small towns around the country are struggling with crumbling infrastructure, with aging water and sewer pipes, and Dunsmuir is no exception. Most of its pipes were in place by World War II, some before World War I. About half the city’s 37 miles of water and sewer lines are in need of replacement.

The good news is that some of that replacement work has already been done. Dunsmuir has already replaced about one-fourth of its faulty water mains and just under one-fifth of its faulty sewer lines. While it seeks government grants for the remaining repairs, pipe leaks are keeping the city’s public works crew scrambling. Major breaks have occurred in recent years all over the city.

In 2016, the city launched a five-year program of utility user rate increases to help pay for repairs to the water system. The annual rate increases started at ten percent and will gradually drop to 7.5 percent the last year, when ends in June 2021. The funds are being used to finance plans for the repair program and, if necessary, to pay back government loans.

City officials are hoping they won’t have to take out loans, that grants from the state, made available to cash-strapped cities like Dunsmuir, can help pay for most if not all of the remaining fixes.

The city, through an application made by PACE Engineering of Redding, is awaiting a decision on a $9.2 million grant to cover most of the remaining repairs to the water system, repairs that will leave one-fourth of the city’s defective pipes still in need of repair.

Don’t look for this to happen anytime soon, though. The pool of grant money, from state Proposition 1 funds, has been depleted for the rest of this fiscal year, so there won’t be any more grant money available until next summer. Even then, notes PACE Engineering’s Paul Reuter, “it takes the state forever to process grant applications.”

Another option would be to seek low-interest loans made available to rural communities by the US Department of Agriculture. Funds accumulated from the rate increases would then be used to pay back the loans. In some cases, notes Dunsmuir City Manager Mark Brannigan, substantial amounts of grant money can be included with the USDA loans.

Thus far the city has been able to replace 7,400 feet of its aging sewer mains and lateral pipelines, with about 42,000 feet still to go. According to Reuter, Dunsmuir is “really close” to getting a decision from the state on a grant application to replace another major portion, one-fourth, of its faulty sewer pipes.

Despite making some improvements to its wastewater treatment plant eight years ago, the city is facing a potential $12,000 fine for discharging bacteria from the wastewater system into the Sacramento River last year and in 2016.

In a recent interview City Manager Brannigan expressed the hope that in lieu of a fine the state’s Water Quality Control Board might authorize the city to use the amount of the fine to make further improvements at the wastewater plant that would help bring discharges into the river down to acceptable levels. Bryan Smith, a supervising engineer with the state water board, noted that such arrangements are often made with small rural communities in California.

One improvement being considered is a switch from the use of chlorine as a decontaminant to a more sophisticated, and environmentally friendly, treatment of wastewater by ultraviolet light. The UV system is favored by state regulators, but comes at a cost of roughly $1 million.

To help pay for additional improvements at the wastewater plant and replacement of the remaining crumbling sewer pipes, the city is considering a five-year rate increase program similar to the one adopted for the water system.

The need for such a rate increase has been approved in concept by a special committee, composed of residents, Council members, and city staff, that is studying possible options for the city’s sewer and solid waste systems. The committee must next approve a specific rate increase program for the sewer system before it goes to the Council for a vote.

Rate increases for utility users are, understandably, a touchy subject for local elected officials. The rate increase approved by the Council for water users helped spur a recall election that drove two City Council members out of office.

But despite the political difficulties – and because doing nothing invites disaster – inch by inch and foot by foot Dunsmuir is gradually replacing its aging underground infrastructure.