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Pay to poop 

Extensive upgrades to the Paso Robles treatment plant are sending sewer bills through the roof

When they opened their mail in early August, many Paso Robles homeowners were shocked to see the effects of new sewer service charges. Hopefully they were sitting down – on a porcelain seat with flushing capabilities – because the dramatic increases could have caused some serious brick shitting.

Instead of the flat, $25.86 fee single-family households were accustomed to paying, they’re now being charged $4.50 for every unit of water (roughly 748 gallons) that passes through their homes. For most, that translated to a sizable increase. Some sewer bills doubled; others tripled; but many actually saw a reduction, according to assistant city manager Meg Williamson.

“It’s volume based, which is really the fairest approach possible,” Williamson said.

Jeff Penick of Turn-Key Property Management said that his company will likely have to change their renter agreements and pass the new sewer costs to tenants. At a mobile home park he manages, that would boost sewer bills by $25 a month, which can have a huge impact on many of the fixed-income seniors who live there.

“I was caught by surprise,” Penick said. “I think a lot of people were.”

At the Aug. 7 city council meeting, several citizens complained that the increase was too sharp and too sudden to handle. With her tired children grabbing at her legs, Brenda Mendoza told the council that she didn’t understand why she was being asked to pay so much more when her usage hadn’t changed, and Marnie Dilbeck urged the council to do anything in their power to lower the rates.

“It’s not fair to the community in any way shape or form,” she later told New Times. “This wasn’t a well thought out process.”

The Dilbeck family consists of two adults and two small children living in an old house on an 1,100-square-foot-lot. Both parents are employed, but they said they’ve sunk most of their savings into fixing up their fixer-upper. They’ve got a decent garden, and their summer water bills used to hover around $110. Their latest bill hit $246, mostly due to sewer costs. Now they’re afraid to even turn on the water, she said.

“We’re barely hanging on, counting every penny month to month,” Dilbeck said. “If this continues to increase, we won’t be able to afford it.”

But increase it will.

In an ordinance the city council passed Dec. 6, a rate schedule was established that will jack the price from $4.50 per unit to $7.80 by the year 2016. The amount customers pay is figured from their average monthly consumption during the previous December, January, and February, winter months that don’t see a lot of landscape watering. Houses only have meters measuring water flow on the intake side, but it’s assumed that every drop used in the winter goes down the drain and into the sewer.

The city will use the extra funds to overhaul the wastewater treatment plant, which was built in the 1950s and uses an antiquated trickling filtration system to remove contaminates from sewage before discharging 3 million gallons of “clean” water into the nearby Salinas River every day. Notice the use of quotation marks.

Scientists from the Fruit Growers Laboratory, a Ventura-based company, regularly test samples of the water to check whether or not it meets standards imposed by the Central Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board (CCRWQCB), which granted the plant its discharge permit. A 2011 report shows that the plant failed for “acute toxicity” in April, July, and October and that discharged effluent repeatedly tested too high for sodium. For every day the plant is in violation, the city can be fined up to $3,000, and the water has been missing the mark since 2004, according to wastewater division supervisor Chris Slater, who said the dirty water wouldn’t harm humans but is impacting aquatic life.

“We have quite a history of violations,” Slater said. “The problem here is that the plant is just too old.”

Slater said trickling filters and chlorine infusions simply can’t clean water to the state’s increasingly restrictive standards, so roughly 80 percent of the plant will be dismantled and replaced with a biological nutrient removal system. Of course, new sewage will continue to flow into the plant during construction, so work crews will have to build the new system around existing structures and tie them together once the biological nutrient removal component is completed. Basically, little organisms will eat the waste until all that’s left is pure water, but building the structures that make it possible will cost the city an estimated $49.6 million, but the city is also preparing for up to $10 million more in possible change order costs if problems are encountered during construction.

Water is currently discharged via a series of six large pools, but the new plant will feature a whindy man-made riparian habitat

Last year, the CCRWQCB agreed to forgive violations in exchange for the city’s adherence to a time schedule order, a strict plan to complete the necessary plant upgrades in a hurry. Paso Robles has to amass funds and break ground by November of 2012. Construction is expected to take 30 months and will include a cogeneration system that will produce electricity from biogas and a winding, man-made riparian habitat that will replace the six large pools that currently discharge into the Salinas River.

On Aug. 7, city council authorized the city manager to sign for a State Revolving Fund loan to cover the expenses. The scheduled sewer rate increases were based on an expected interest rate of 3.9 percent, but wastewater manager Matt Thompson told the council that the state has recently authorized similar loans at lower rates, closer to 2.5 percent, so the city could renegotiate and lower the cost to residents.

At the last meeting, council members were quick to remind the public that the state was making them serve this crap sandwich. They didn’t want to do it, but the public would still have to eat it.

Sheila Soderberg of the CCRWQCB admitted that the state sets the limits and expects cities to meet them. Paso has unique circumstances because of its sulfur springs and wide spread use of water softeners, but other cities have had little trouble complying.

“In a sense, it’s really the city’s plan and project,” Soderberg said. “It costs a lot to stay compliant, but a forward thinking city can plan for upgrades and maintenance like this.”

Those who are having trouble paying their sewer bills have options for help. Residents who had a leak or filled a pool during the winter months can file a “one time adjustment request” with the city to remove any abnormal water usage from their monthly bill. The city also agreed to waive connection fees for a second meter that would monitor landscaping use, ensuring that the sewer bill is entirely accurate. Residents are encouraged to limit their water use as much as possible during the winter.

Staff Writer Nick Powell can be reached at

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