Councilmember Olbert: Sewer Systems Aren't Sexy, But Need Some Attention

In a recent blog posting, San Carlos City Councilmember Mark Olbert says the city's 70-year-old sewer system is serious need of repairs and upgrades.

[Editor's Note: The following is a Nov. 29 blog posting from the website of San Carlos City Councilmember Mark Olbert. For more information, or to read other blogs by Olbert, go to http://council.olbert.com/.]


By Mark Olbert

People who work in organizations know the “no surprises” rule is key to running an effective operation. Surprises cause disruption and confusion, which is rarely a good thing. In the interest of avoiding surprise, I want to begin educating San Carlos about a big-ticket issue we need to address.

You know all those articles you’ve read about aging public infrastructure that needs to be replaced? It’s happening here…right under our feet. Our sanitary sewer system is in urgent need of repairs and upgrades.

This is the system that conveys waste water from our properties to the sewage treatment plant located on the eastern end of Redwood Shores. It’s one of two sewer systems serving us, the other one routing storm water directly into the Bay. The sanitary system is larger than you might think. During dry weather it handles 2.5 million gallons a day. Almost all of that — 79% — is from residential property. During the rainy season usage rises to 2.9 million gallons a day, due in large part to leaks and connections from gutters and property drains (which are illegal, by the way). Anticipated development projects are expected to add another 730,000 gallons a day over the next few years.

To view the Nov. 13 San Carlos City Council agenda and video discussion about the this topic, click here.

Why are repairs needed? Sewer systems aren’t sexy, so they don’t rank high on the list of places to spend money to improve a community. They’re also, literally, out of sight, tended by a group of hard-working and dedicated city employees whose goal is to ensure no one ever knows there are problems. They’ve done a great job over the years (give them a wave when you see them out and about). Nevertheless, there’s a limit to how long you can patch something.

Much of our sanitary sewer system is 60 to 70 years old, with parts closing in on the century mark. For clay pipe — the dominant form of construction — that’s a long time, particularly in an earthquake area also subject to ground movements. Joints between pipes get disconnected, cracks form, tree roots gain entry, etc., and the next thing you know  groundwater gets into what used to be a sealed system. That’s why the flow rate jumps 15% when it rains. Those failures also reduce the system’s throughput (e.g., roots and dislocated connections slow or block flow). When you add the growth that’s occurred since the bulk of the trunk lines were installed it’s not surprising we have a problem to address.

There’s a related situation developing, too. Sewage has to go somewhere. For us, that’s ultimately the Bay. But it has to be processed first, because otherwise we’d kill the Bay and create a serious health hazard. The cleaning job is handled by the Redwood Shores sewage treatment facility, which is jointly owned and operated by a number of communities, including San Carlos.

The existing facility was funded primarily with federal money in the 1980s, and was built much larger than it needed to be. As a result, there was little pressure to do long-term maintenance and incremental capacity expansions. Deferring that kind of work let communities hold down sewer rates for many years. This wasn’t good long-term thinking, but it’s a common problem in the public sector. Everyone hates paying more for public services, so there’s a perverse incentive for elected leaders to let things slide. Unfortunately, the bill for decades of cost-avoidance is coming due now, in the form of a major facility overhaul and expansion. That has to be paid for by the member communities, irrespective of the work they need to do on their own pipes and pumps.

The preliminary cost estimate for fixing our sanitary sewer system is roughly $130 million, spread over 20 years:

$K 7/1/12 – 6/30/18 7/1/18 – 6/30/32 Total Major Local Projects            8,802               779            9,581

Pipe Rehabilitation          12,000          49,977          61,977

Sewage Treatment Facility Upgrade          47,700          11,300          59,000

Total          68,502          62,056        130,558

These are some pretty large numbers. On the other hand, they’re targeted at keeping sewage where it belongs for a community whose total assessed value is roughly $10 billion dollars.

To view the Nov. 13 San Carlos City Council agenda and video discussion about the this topic, click here.

There are a lot of ways to finance this. In fact, we’ve already begun paying for it by virtue of the 6% sewer rate increase the Council approved last July. But if we were to issue bonds to pay for our share of the sewage treatment facility upgrade and repay them through higher sewer charges, the future rate increases might look like the graph to the right.

Note: Please refer to graph at right.

That’s another year with a 6% increase, like this year, and then increases just under 3% per year for five more years. The overall impact relative to today would be to raise sewer rates about 21% from where they are now over the next six years. That would let us pay for the needed repairs to our local pipes and pumps, and service bonds issued to pay for our share of the sewage treatment facility upgrade.

Remember, this is my analysis, based on staff cost estimates and what is known about the state of our sanitary sewer system today. Our staff experts are busily doing their own analysis, which I’m sure will be more complete and accurate than mine. My goal here is to share the general picture with you, and avoid surprises down the road. Staff will present their more detailed work and suggestions on funding to the Council over the coming months. Make sure you stay apprised of those discussions, and get your questions answered.

I don’t know what the Council’s ultimate decision on this matter will be. But the problem was kicked down the road at least once a few years ago. Since then, problems and costs have continued to grow. I think it’d be wiser for us address the problem, rather than put off what will be a more expensive day of reckoning. It is, after all, not usually a good idea to stick your head in the sand…particularly where there are leaky sanitary sewer pipes nearby.

For more information, go to http://council.olbert.com/.

To view the Nov. 13 San Carlos City Council agenda and video discussion about the this topic, click here.

Marc Parent December 09, 2012 at 09:56 PM
Thanks for that information. So please let us all know. 1. How much would you like to borrow for your sexy sewers? 2. How do you intend on paying for this sexy sewer project, ie money that you want to get via bond, increased fees on tax bills or parcel tax? 3. What is the current debt that San Carlos is carrying for other not so sexy projects, ie other (big project) bonds that are still being paid by parcel taxes etc. 4. If you do intend on putting the town in more debt (which I think if your point as stated above), please let us all know what is the effective interest rate and total cost after payout. 5. Are there not already fees attached to our annual tax bill for these not so sexy sewer services, and if there are, why are they not covered by what we already pay? 6. What are the major issues that we can all see with the problem with the system leaving you so the only option is to borrow more money to spend and is there mis management with the department that money already charged, cannot be spent wisely that you need to get more money? I like to make sure that money is spent wisely as those of us on fixed incomes are under considerable strain from people who increase fees, like garbage, and parcel taxes, as well as bonds. For schools alone (I am sure you are aware), there have been 2 parcel taxes and 2 bond measure voted in the past 5 years. Please let me know why politicians want to spend money instead of save money. Thanks for much.
Marc Parent December 13, 2012 at 07:05 AM
Still no answers yet?
Marc Parent December 27, 2012 at 04:59 PM
Still waiting on this response from Mark Olbert which generally means Tax increase, (either sales or parcel) or bond which would pass the bill onto the town with the looming payments making it difficult to fund other needed projects. Typical from Mr Olbert, 3 months in office and breaking out the San Carlos checkbook for the citizens to pay for things that are not immediately problematic in a down economy, this is why he did not get my vote then, nor will he get it in the future.
Mark Olbert December 28, 2012 at 04:14 PM
I haven't responded to your earlier posts because I'm not monitoring the comment thread. You can learn about our sanitary sewer system problems by getting a copy of staff's report. In addition to a bunch of data and analyses it also contains pictures of problems. Current sewer rates will pay for a portion of the necessary work. Just not all of it. Historically, sewer rates were artificially low, for several reasons. The sewage treatment plant was built primarily with Federal funds in the 1980s. In effect, the plant was gifted to the communities it serves by the Federal government. No comparable program exists today, so most of the repair and expansion cost has to be paid for by local funds. In addition, the sewage treatment plant was allowed to run down in order to hold down rates. A similar thing also impacted San Carlos' sewer pipes. This kept rates lower than they would have been but also set the stage for today's significant repair effort. We have some important choices to make with our infrastructure. I am sensitive to those on fixed incomes, which is why I proposed we create a program to offer qualifying seniors discounts on city fees. But none of us want sewage running down the streets, or polluting the Bay. However, many may not want to see other program cuts to pay for repairs, either. It's great you want to stay informed. I encourage you to follow the Council's discussions on the sanitary sewer system and decides how to proceed.
Marc Parent January 15, 2013 at 03:28 PM
Thanks for that response, however you neglected to answer any of my questions regarding payment for these plans like you had in your previous comment. I do attend meetings, and will continue to do so, however for our friends and neighbors who are too busy to make time to see how the concil operates and how budgets are spent, (like your proposal), it would be nice if you were kind enough to answer my questions above, Thanks in advance. You statements above contain to hard data that I thought would be available to you when this article was written. If you are saying that rates need to rise, then why have they not been voted on in recent years. It seems that Garbage has doubled, shools have new bond and parcel tax, why has there not been increases in sewage? I am confused as to where this is going, rate increase or bond? I know you want to start spending, but how are you planning to get our dollars? It is what you do best.


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