State Water Board holds up city’s waste water treatment funding to review details added during the bidding process
By Reggie Ellis @Reggie_SGN
FARMERSVILLE – The City of Farmersville has the money and a contractor for the largest public project in the city’s history. Now all it needs is approval, something the city and its engineering firm already thought was done.
At its Aug. 13 meeting, the Farmersville City Council awarded the contract for construction of its new, estimated $18 million wastewater treatment plant (WWTP) to Clark Bros. Inc. The Fresno contractor’s bid of $16.9 million was the lowest total bid. Unfortunately, having the money and a contractor were not enough to move forward on the project which has the potential to hold up future growth in the county’s second smallest city.
City manager Jennifer Gomez explained to the city that even though they were awarding the contract this month, they were still waiting for approval from the State Water Resources Control Board, commonly known as the State Water Board, because it was still reviewing an Amended Funding Agreement from the City. The review is significant because the bulk of the funding to construct the facility, around $13 million, is coming from the State Water Board’s State Revolving Fund.
QK, the city’s engineering firm, informed the City that the initial environmental studies for the facility were approved by the City Council in October 2012. Those studies, including an Initial Study and Mitigated Negative Declaration required by the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), were then submitted to the State Water Board for review. When QK submitted more detailed documents developed for the bidding process, the State Water Board questioned whether the new information regarding an electrical building, monitoring wells, a sludge thickening building, and an effluent meter box required the city to generate new environmental studies.
In an Aug. 17 memo, QK’s Harry A. Tow, an environmental planner, and Steve Brandt, a principal planner, explained to the State Water Board that the new project description was simply a more precise version of the general description provided in 2012.
“The more precise design details of the project description that were generated from the preparation of bid-level project design do not expand the project description’s scope,” QK wrote. “They instead further define the scope of the project that was already adequately analyzed.”
The memo goes on to state that under CEQA, environmental studies do not have to be revisited unless there are substantial changes to the project, to circumstances surrounding the project, or to information regarding the project. QK also cited two cases where appellate courts ruled that specifics were not required under CEQA. In 1999, the 5th District Court affirmed that CEQA only requires “a ‘general description’ of a project’s technical characteristics” in Dry Creek Citizens Coalition v. County of Tulare. The court advised that an “[environmental impact report] must achieve a balance between technical accuracy and public understanding.” In 1996, the 4th District Court ruled that support facilities are not required to be detailed in an EIR if it is not meaningful at the time the project is prepared in the case National Parks and Conservation Association v. County of Riverside.
QK wrote in the memo, “In review of the whole record, there is no substantial evidence that new significant environmental effects or substantial increase in the severity of previously identified (and mitigated) identified significant effects will result, and there is not substantial evidence that the project or the circumstances surrounding the project have changed. Therefore, no new environmental documentation is necessary and the existing approved documentation remains adequate.”
QK first identified the need to upgrade the WWTP more than a decade ago. The City’s current WWTP has not been expanded since 1978 and right now processes on 850,000 gallons per day which is 68% of its 1.25 million gallon capacity. Nonetheless the State Water Board mandates cities to begin plans to expand their WWTP when they reach 70% of capacity which Farmersville does on high capacity days.
Despite the mandate, the City would be hampered economically if they were not able to expand their WWTP. Because not having available capacity also means cities cannot issue “will serve” letters to developers, a required document for them to build. That could lead to the State issuing a ban on new development, which would further hamper the impoverished city’s ability to pay for its own needed improvements like sewer and water.
In March, the city council voted unanimously to move forward on a $5 million loan from the United State Department of Agriculture (USDA) Rural Development. The 40-year loan at 2.75% interest will be paid back through rate increases that began in 2013. Last November, the final step of the five-year rate ratcheting ended when residents began paying $56.61 per month for sewer, up from $23.75 in 2013.