Oxnard wastewater rate battle: what are the REAL costs? What SHOULD the rates be?

What is it and why Oxnard wants more of your money; plus: facility tour

By George Miller

Background

Oxnard recently approved a 88% increase in wastewater rates over a four year period. There has been much controversy over this. Some believe that the increase is unjustified and that the City’s accounting system is so bad that they don’t even know what it really costs. But, it is fairly certain that reserves have dropped alarmingly and would have soon vanished if nothing was done. This article attempts to explore the cost/rate issue, to help the public better understand what is going on and what the facts are.

Oxnard’s wastewater processing “enterprise” has been sorely neglected for too long. Ratepayer revenues were being spent faster than collected, while long-deferred maintenance, obsolescence, manpower  deficiencies, lack of leadership, new regulatory demands and inflation accelerated the financial and upkeep deficit. Contrary to what many think, wastewater and other utility funds are managed separately from the general fund which finances police, fire, administration and most, but not all other city services. However, some city department service costs, such as for Finance Dept., Human Resources, Information Technology and even City Manager’s office, are allocated to utility divisions based on estimated approximate usage.

Oxnard Wastewater Treatment Plant

Oxnard Wastewater Treatment Plant

So, how bad is it and how did it happen? Well, past administrations neglected maintenance and staffing, while no major rate increases occurred for a decade. Then, after highly publicized corruption investigations, there were extended forced leaves of absence and subsequent terminations of the City Manager and Public Works Director. An Interim City Manager’s administration was seemingly on autopilot for years, before the City Council finally reacted and recruited a permanent City Manager. That City Manager, Greg Nyhoff, has been in office for nearly two years. During that time he had an operational audit conducted which revealed many deficiencies in the operation of the city, initiated the creation of a utilities master plan and is attempting to start implementing it.

Some of the approach is in dispute and opposition is mounting. What was a proposed total rebuild of the plant has morphed into a mid-term fix, followed by a rebuild of the oldest portions.

In spite of all this, a stripped down, but professional staff, augmented by consultants, has kept the wastewater system running fairly well, but only by postponing the day of reckoning and possibly risking catastrophic failures with major consequences. There have been a couple of serious failures, resulting in a ground spillage and partially untreated, although super-chlorinated (bacteria killed), effluent diverted to the ocean.

On a tour last week, we saw badly corroded machinery, crumbling concrete, superannuated electrical systems and caved in roofs, which could conceivably lead to catastrophic failures, stopping the process long enough to force diversion of untreated wastewater to the sea, or even result in land spillage.  In some cases there are inadequate spares, with very long lead times. There is a fair degree of system redundancy to avoid a lot of potential outages. But a component failure would, in most cases stress the system by requiring other components to work harder and longer. Some redundant systems, such as clarifiers, are not serviceable at this time, increasing outage risk.

Several reports to City Council on the wastewater situation revealed the extent of the problems. Interim Utilities Director Dan Rydburg and created a master plan which called for major maintenance, hiring and  $675 million in capital projects to totally rebuild the most of the system. All this, of course, would have a cost to the ratepayers, which translated into a major rate increase to fund not only the aforementioned expenses, but rebuilding millions in severely depleted reserves and paying for additional debt obligations placement, insurance, principal and interest for many years out in the future. Rydburg told us that about half of this would be funded with ongoing rate revenues and half via new debt.

The wastewater system

The Oxnard Wastewater Enterprise takes care of all sanitary sewage collection, processing and disposal, as well as stormwater runoff,  for a city of over 200,000 people, PLUS two major military bases, parts of Camarillo, some unincorporated areas and the Channel Islands  Beach Community. It is called an “enterprise,” because it is a legally separate entity, financially and operationally, although it reports to the City Manager, who reports to the Council and shares use of certain other department resources, such as Finance, Human Resources and Treasury.  The Wastewater Enterprise Fund is separately accounted for.

System Overview

  • 400 + mile of pipes
  • Sewage collection via 2 major piping systems with 15 pumping stations- Oxnard, portions of Camarillo, 2 military bases, Channel Islands Community District, some unincorporated areas
  • Stormwater runoff collection, routed to Pacific ocean via multiple drains
  • Major sewage processing plant (6001 Perkins Road)
  • Currently processing about 19 million gallons per day (MGPD), down from about 23 MGPD before the drought restrictions. Capacity is believed to be about 33 MGPD. Up to 55 MGPD have arrived during torrential rains which infiltrate the system. Capacity could be increased to 39.7 MGPD with expansion of secondary sedimentation tanks and adding a dissolved air flotation unit. Ocean discharge system can handle 50 MGPD. The drought restrictions have not only greatly reduced volumes but cut significantly into revenues as a result.
OxWaterPlant

Oxnard’s Advanced Water Purification Facility uses part of the wastewater plant output.

  • The Wastewater Enterprise also runs the Advanced Water Purification Facility (AWPF), which creates about 6 MGPD very clean recycled water from part of the output of the wastewater plant. There are some synergies in operating the two facilities. There are plans to increase output to as much as 24MGPD, but it will be quite costly to develo that capability.

OxWastewaterProcess

Just getting wastewater to its destination is a major undertaking in itself. There are over 400 miles of related pipes throughout the city, which collect wastewater from virtually every residence, business, government or other facility in its sprawling jurisdiction. then routes it for processing through two major piping systems, via gravity and and 15 remote pumping stations.

Once wastewater is delivered to the processing plant at 6001 Perkins Road, it goes through multiple phases, until a far cleaner product is dumped into the conveniently nearby largest ocean in the world, with some of that diverted to the Advanced Water Purification Facility (AWPF) across the street, where it ends up more pure than your tap water. The public and government are not yet psychologically ready for “toilet-to-Tap” drinking water, so it is currently illegal to do that. However, it can and is being sold for irrigation/industrial uses.

 

OxWastewaterSchematic

Source: Oxnard Wastewater enterprise

Click for larger IMAGE

 

Facility tour

On Tuesday, 4-5-16, after seeing a 16 minute overview video of the facility, we toured a large portion of the 44 acre wastewater processing site, with Civil Engineer Thien Ng, PE, and Maintenance Manager Jeffrey Miller. Both of these professionals are key on-site personnel and have also been pressed into service to plead the wastewater case for facility funding to City Council, staff and the public. Ng was the project manager for the Headworks, the newest portion of the plant- front end processing portion, placed in service in 2008.

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Seagulls were all around a huge, smelly, corroded “clarifier” tank at the Oxnard Wastewater processing plant on a 4-5-16 tour. Photo: George Miller/Citizensjournal.us

One thing which is immediately striking is the presence of wildlife at the site. We saw raccoon droppings and an abundance of birds all around. We were told that huge tanks of in-process sewage must be periodically drained to remove many tons of snails, which sometimes accumulate a couple of feet deep and block the aeration which stimulates aerobic bacterial growth designed to break down the solids in suspension. Unseen were enormous quantities of multiple varieties of bacteria used to break down, or “digest” the suspended solid matter.

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Oxnard Wastewater plant personnel Civil Engineer Thien Ng, PE, and Maintenance Manager Jeffrey Miller conduct a facility tour on 4-5-16. Photo: George Miller/CitizensJournal.us

We saw some badly corroded machinery, crumbling concrete, superannuated electrical systems and caved in roofs, which could conceivably lead to catastrophic failures, stopping the process long enough to force diversion of untreated wastewater to the sea, or even result in land spillage. In some cases there are inadequate spares, with very long lead times. There is a fair degree of system redundancy to avoid a lot of potential outages. But a component failure would, in most cases stress the system by requiring other components to work harder and longer. Some redundant systems, such as clarifiers, are not serviceable at this time, increasing outage risk.

OXWWOldTech2

Older technology process controls at Oxnard Wastewater plant- 4-5-16. Photo: George Miller/CitizensJournal.us

 

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VietNam War era US Navy diesel generators used for backup power at Oxnard Wastewater plant- 4-5-16. Photo: George Miller/CitizensJournal.us

But in spite of all this, the plant is orderly, clean- considering the nature of its use- and relatively well kept.

We were shown all major processes, which take initial raw sewage input and screen out larger solid objects, then begin to pull out smaller solid wastes, “digest” the remaining effluent using bacteria to break it down, “de-water” and compact the solid wastes for landfill  (3  22,000 lb. truckloads daily at present), then finally send most of the much cleaner product over a mile out to the sea, diverting about 6 million gallons daily to the AWPF.

Along our way on the tour, we saw the relatively new and modern headworks, the much older secondary processes of “clarifiers,” “digesters,” solid waste de-watering press, pumping stations, co-generation (powered by a mix of methane scavenged from the wastewater processing and natural gas), chemical treatment, then delivery to destinations.

Many of the pumps, switches, relays, controls, generators are half-century-old technology, as are most of the piping and large concrete vessels. Many are near or past their useful lives. One, a $30 million crumbling “biotower,” is so old and obsolete that it doesn’t even need to be replaced, but instead, upstream processes will be enhanced to obviate the need for it.

There are much newer process controls in the headworks and process monitoring throughout the plant.

Oxnard Wastewater plant monitoring system screen shot. Photo: GeorgeMiller/CitizensJournal.us

 

Costs/Revenue

Mr. Thien Ng, Senior Civil Engineer, told us that the annual wastewater budget is about $33 million, with revenues a bit higher than that since the rate increase effective last month. The current budget breaks down roughly as follows:

OxWastewaterExpenses

Source, Dan Rydburg, Oxard Interim Utilities Director.

OXUtilitiesBudgetStatus4-12-16

 

Capital Improvements

The mid-term Capital Improvement plan to be presented at the 4-12-16 City Council meeting comes to $74 million.

OXWastewaterCapital4-12-16

Beyond that, a major rebuild of the older processes and part of the collection network would cost far more and require still more rate increases and borrowing. Dan Rydberg estimated that overall city debt (now just under a half-billion), would have to double to accommodate it.  No rate increase estimates beyond 2020 were offered. City staff estimate that groundbreaking wouldn’t commence for at least 5-7 years.

Oxnard has no “sinking funds” or provisions for future utilities capital improvements at this time, necessitating far higher rates and borrowing to pay for these. However, a new policy to be offered at the 4-12-16 Council meeting would address that for the future- see download: Oxnard Utility Rate Policy 4-12-16

The long term capital improvement plan was not discussed at this meeting, except to mention a $400+ million dollar addition to the $74 million mid-term plan previously discussed.  This will be the subject of  a future CitizensJournal.us article.

 

Rate Discussion

At a 4-5-16 meeting at City Hall with City management, wastewater and financial personnel, we were told that the rate increase has now brought revenues above expenses ($35 vs $33 million), but that capital expenses and rebuilding reserves necessitate more revenues. We were told that future approved rate increases would meet capital budget ( including debt service) and reserve replenishment needs.

We asked how much was being received in grants and how much is anticipated and were told that it is too uncertain to mention any numbers. But it is likely that grants will be received and none at all were factored in. We also asked how much anticipated development fees would be allocated to wastewater and received  a similar answer. Finally, one wonders if drought restrictions may be eased and increase revenues again. We were told that might happen, but that new conservation habits mean that demand probably won’t rebound to previous levels.

The charts below from the City show how the rate increases will be used ….

OXWWrateDrivers1

OXWWrateDrivers2

 

OXWWFinForecast

 

Questions raised by opponents to this plan are: 

  1. Are the estimates accurate? 
  2. Are the accounting numbers accurate?
  3. Can any of these expenses be deferred?
  4. Can efficiency improvements pay for some of this?

 

See our previous article links- search for Oxnard utility rates.

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George Miller is Publisher of CitizensJournal.us and a “retired” operations management consultant residing in Oxnard.

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