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We have no option except to raise our sewer rates

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Posted: Friday, June 12, 2009 10:00 pm

What would you pay each year to prevent a citywide epidemic of typhoid or cholera? To keep our rivers clean so we can fish and swim in them with minimal risk?

The price we pay is a pittance compared to the value we receive from our modern wastewater system. In a time when we need to make every dollar count, we receive a remarkably high level of service for about $1 a day.

All we need to do is flip a lever or keep a drain open, and our dirty water is safely gone. We don't give it a second thought. We don't have to.

For Lodians, we can simply flush it and forget it. The cost of this vital service, though, is going up. I'm not happy about that, and I know many citizens won't be. But we have little choice, as the rising costs are created by regulatory mandates. These mandates are set to achieve environmental standards, and they are beyond our control here in Lodi.

Let me provide a bit of background - and explanation.

We take this modern engineering miracle for granted. Hookworm disease is widespread throughout the world, infecting an estimated 740 million people where conditions are less sanitary. This parasite once was common in the southeastern United States, but is now largely controlled because of better waste collection and treatment practices. Also, cholera is almost unknown in the U.S. because of modern sanitation. But much of the world continues to suffer cholera pandemics, with more than 100,000 cases and 4,000 deaths from cholera in Zimbabwe since August.

In Lodi, we avoid this with the help of a sewer system made up of 194 miles of pipes, all leading to a modern treatment plant that separates, filters and disinfects about 2.4 billion gallons of wastewater a year. What starts as raw sewage ends up as water cleaner than what naturally flows past Lodi in the Mokelumne River.

All for about $1 a day.

The federal government essentially paid for the construction of the White Slough Water Pollution Control Facility in the 1960s, one reason we've enjoyed low rates over the years. But we're no longer the recipient of such generosity.

Instead, regulatory agencies set the bar higher for how we operate the treatment plant near Interstate 5. They don't care what it costs; just do it. Although we have a history of responsible operation and mutual respect with the Regional Water Quality Control Board, the environmental agency continually imposes conditions that require more construction, more oversight and more testing. That costs money.

It's this environment that has resulted in a series of wastewater rate increases in Lodi this decade, and the reason we need to raise rates again. You probably received a notice in the mail recently outlining the proposed increase to take effect July 16.

Honestly, this should have been considered more than a year ago. In all, about $50 million has been spent on wastewater plant improvements since 2001. In late 2007, the city issued more than $30 million in bonds in order to pay for state-mandated plant upgrades, facilities allowing the plant to reach its original capacity, and a $7.5 million emergency replacement of the 40-year-old pipeline that connects the city to the plant.

At the same time, however, the City Council was looking at taking measures needed to strengthen the health of the Lodi Electric Utility, and that resulted in higher costs for residents. In the meantime, we were able to use our savings in the sewer fund to temporarily offset the construction and higher operating costs at the sewer plant.

So we waited, rather than have residents and businesses deal with higher energy and sewer costs all at once.

Now we have no realistic alternatives to raising sewer rates, which will still be lower than those paid in many nearby communities. Keeping the status quo means either ignoring state rules and regulations and facing fines of up to $1 million a day, or cutting back other city services by about $2 million a year. That's roughly the annual budget of the Parks Division.

Our society has placed a high value on the environment and public health. We can engineer solutions that most of the world can only dream of. Although that carries a cost, it's a small price compared to what we would otherwise pay in the future.

Larry Hansen is the mayor of Lodi.

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