Saturday, July 21 , 2018, 12:58 pm | A Few Clouds 71º

 
 
 
 

Ron Fink: It Rained, Did Santa Barbara Notice?

We’ve had a multi-year drought in California. Wildland vegetation died, landscaping dried up, water was rationed.

Subsequently, water rates were increased to make up for the loss of income to the water utilities because it costs just as much to deliver 10 gallons of water as it does to deliver 10,000 gallons.

These drought periods seem to occur periodically, some lasting five years or more, and then it rains like it has for the last few weeks.

In both situations, global warming alarmists express the opinion that it just must be humans' use of commercial products or bovine flatulence that is causing climate change and that results in it being either dry or wet.

Well, in one respect they are correct; the climate changed and so did the weather.

Because the South Coast has grown dramatically over the last couple of decades, and the water supply hasn’t, the drought caused some serious angst in the Santa Barbara front country, so much so that local leaders decided to build a desalination plant again.

This is the second try for this project, the first was abandoned following the last major rain event.

This time, officials may be serious though. They originally told residents the plant would cost $53 million to build and about $4.1 million a year to operate. Now it’s up to $7.8 million in estimated operational costs and construction costs have soared.

Time has again proven that government estimates and political tinkering can increase costs.

Why is it that those who plan government projects can’t sit down and properly plan what it will take to achieve their goal the first time?

I don’t know who they hire to design these projects and prepare cost estimates, but I do know that if this same strategy had been employed in private industry, either the designer or the board of directors (in this case the City Council) would be looking for another job.

This time project planners forgot they would need a $12-million pipe to carry the processed water to the city water treatment plant so it could be distributed to customers, and didn’t consider that all the filter membranes had to be replaced for another $16-million.

Since they forgot the basic necessity of having a pipe to move water for customer delivery, what else did they forget.

Apparently, when the plant was first built no one from the city held the contractor accountable for providing some key information.

Per a Noozhawk report in January of this year:

“City water resources manager Joshua Haggmark said that the plant originally was constructed in the early 1990s with haste and urgency.

"Record drawings and documents by the original contractor don’t match the exact construction of the physical facility, he said, ultimately leading to the recent discoveries and the new appropriations needed to remedy them.

"For probably the sake of time, they did not do a lot of things that they said they were going to do on the drawings, and now we are kind of paying that price.”

Let’s hope someone is paying attention this time.

Now, late in the game, the politicians have decided to expand the capacity of the plant to include Montecito as one of their customers. The rich and famous in those hillside mansions aren't in on the deal, so they can continue watering their estates and keep their pools full.

Once again, the great thinkers were absent from the initial planning sessions.

All this has caused the city to increase the bond amount to at least $106 million or twice the original estimate. I feel confident that, based on the project history, they will spend every penny and ask for more later.

As with all other government projects, no matter if it’s a local government or the federal government, the price keeps getting bigger and bigger.

I guess they figure that once they start building it, they have an open-ended budget because politicians will be hesitant to pull the plug even if the costs double, triple or quadruple.

Part of the cost problem is that the decision-makers, in this case the City Council, keep changing things as the project moves forward. Any changes in design after a project has started construction always result in dramatic increases in cost.

Meanwhile, just like back in the 1990s, it started raining, Lake Cachuma is recovering slowly and the state water project will be able to deliver water to the city.

The last time politicians saw the water levels improving they scrapped their desal plans and sold the plant for a penny-on-the-dollar.

Snap quiz: With all this new water, will the water rates be reduced to previous levels?

If you answered maybe, or yes, you failed the quiz.

— 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]. Click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are his own.

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