Thursday, October 8 , 2015, 11:33 pm | Fair 73º

Ron Fink: Lompoc vs. Santa Barbara — What Do Pipes and Pumps Have to Do with Economic Development?

By Ron Fink |

Sometimes staff reports that are presented to the City Council can be laced with minutia that baffles the ordinary person. A few weeks ago, just such a report was presented to the Lompoc City Council by the city’s utility director.

Councilman Dirk Starbuck had requested prior to the meeting that it be pulled from the Consent Calendar so the council could discuss it. If he hadn’t done that, a very important discussion of how the city’s water and wastewater systems work and just what they mean to the future of the community never would have happened.

Allegations had previously been made by one utility commissioner that the water plant wasn’t being run efficiently, which prompted a study of how both the water and wastewater plants were being operated. The study included information developed by the city’s finance and the utility departments, and their data was sent to the American Water Works Association for evaluation.

The translation of this wonky report into language anyone could understand produced an interesting set of facts and conclusions that added some zip to an otherwise difficult-to-read document.

The overall efficiency of any production facility is measured by comparing the cost of production to the revenue generated. The contributing factors to the overall efficiency ratings include the cost of materials, equipment and employee costs for each unit of water sold and wastewater processed.

So, why did this utility commissioner think the plant is inefficient?

One factor that contributes to lower efficiency is California’s unfunded environmental mandates to reduce water consumption by 20 percent. Lompoc currently exceeds this standard; water plants are designed to accommodate 150 gallons of water a day per person, and Lompoc citizens only use 110 gallons during peak summer months and less than a 100 gallons per person in the off season.

This reduced consumption has resulted in several recent rate increases for existing customers who are now realizing what saving the environment costs. And, if you don’t sell what you are capable of producing, then your efficiency suffers.

Councilman Starbuck questioned why water and wastewater rates had such a dramatic increase, or as he put it, had “gone through the roof.” The utilities director responded that prior councils had not raised rates at the appropriate time to support construction of new facilities or to repair old ones.

The current council, wanting to keep rates low, hasn’t created a rainy day fund to replace the aging infrastructure. A recent example of what happens to old pipes occurred when a major water line broke and the city had to pay several hundred thousand dollars to replace not only the water line but also a building and its damaged contents at a flooring business on North I Street.

So, rate increases are to support future needs — some of which are hard to predict because there are always new regulations being sent down from on high — and, old pipes and pumps do break. Another more serious factor concerning rate increases is that sales are reduced due to conservation efforts while operating costs remain the same.

Meanwhile in Santa Barbara, community leaders don’t seem real concerned about the efficiency of their water delivery systems.

In the late 1990s, they completed and then dismantled a $30 million desalinization plant. There had been several years of dry weather, then after the plant was completed it rained for a few years, they signed up for state water and they thought the problem was solved. So, they sold the plant for pennies on the dollar and lost millions of ratepayer dollars.

Producing water using desalinization plants is probably the most inefficient way there is to make water. These plants consume large quantities of electric power, the filtration system requires expensive maintenance and they create large amounts of briny industrial wastewater.

So instead of planning for growth based on the available water supply, Santa Barbara has instead overbuilt and now must rely on a very expensive system to produce water — one it is paying for twice.

As the city administrator pointed out, Lompoc is in a better position to support growth than other communities, like Santa Barbara, that may have to spend millions of dollars in infrastructure improvements to accommodate it. This capacity has also led to improved fire protection ratings, which translate into lower fire insurance rates.

The takeaway from what could have been a boring and tedious discussion was that our water and wastewater plants are being operated at the greatest efficiency considering the design capacity and conservation requirements. Our aquifer, pipes and pumps can accommodate all of the potential growth that is envisioned in the 2030 General Plan without any new equipment, a situation that isn’t equaled in many communities.

I am glad I chose to live in Lompoc because our community leaders planned for a community to grow and don’t have to rely on expensive new water systems to support the future.

— Ron Fink, a Lompoc resident since 1975, is retired from the aerospace industry and has been active with Lompoc municipal government commissions and committee since 1992, including 12 years on the Lompoc Planning Commission. He is also a voting member of the Santa Barbara County Taxpayers Association. Contact him at [email protected]. The opinions expressed are his own.

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