The current Ventura City Council could reverse twelve years of poor financial decisions by Ventura Water based on faulty assumptions. Prior City Councils have been misled and pressured into believing VenturaWaterPure is the only solution to Ventura’s water problem. That is not true now, nor has it ever been confirmed. There are several solutions the city could pursue. Yet Ventura Water pushed the project with the zeal of religious fanatics to the point where VenturaWaterPure has become dogma at City Hall. Today, the City Council has more information to make a more informed evaluation of VenturaWaterPure. We urge them to use all the information before committing ratepayers to spend more than half a billion dollars.
How The Narrative Began Based On Faulty Assumptions
In 2012, a false narrative about water in Ventura began because of a Consent Decree the city agreed to with environmental groups. Wishtoya, Heal the Bay and other groups sued the city for discharging treated sewage into the Santa Clara River. The Consent Decree required the discharge to go somewhere else. So, city officials built a narrative like this, “Ventura must comply with the Consent Decree; therefore, we can use the treated discharge as another source of water for citizens at a reasonable cost.” The narrative sounded so compelling that one Councilmember said, “If the astronauts can drink it [recycled wastewater], then so can we.” And so, the project known as VenturaWaterPure began, and the narrative became dogma at City Hall. No one at City Hall questioned the false narrative, even though Ventura Water built it on two faulty assumptions that would later prove incorrect.
First Faulty Assumption: It’s Safe To Drink
The only fact in the false narrative is that Ventura must comply with the Consent Decree by 2025. The other parts about recycling wastewater into potable water at a reasonable cost are conjecture. New technological and financial information challenges the dogma. The current City Council should weigh the latest information to reevaluate VenturaWaterPure.
Ventura Water’s first faulty assumption was debunked in 2016 by an expert panel appointed by the State Legislature. The panel concluded that even after treatment the water was unsafe for human consumption because microscopic contaminants and chemicals pose a danger to humans. The Ventura City Council didn’t learn of the 2016 report until March 2019.
A group of concerned citizens brought this information to the city officials, and the 2019 City Council took action to change VenturaWaterPure’s direction. VenturaWaterPure planned to use a process known as direct potable reuse, or DPR, to deliver water to residents. Yet, the City Council forced them to change plans. Ventura Water falsely assumed it could use the treated discharge as potable water.
When the council learned the news from the concerned citizens, they directed Ventura Water to change course on DPR and go to a process known as IPR, or indirect potable reuse, where the treated water is injected back into the aquifer before being extracted and delivered to customers.
How the Ventura Water general manager and its staff did not know about the 2016 expert panel’s report or why they did not tell the City Council that DPR was unsafe for three years remains a mystery. Yet, during those three years, Ventura Water extracted higher water rates from residents and continued to spend the money for VenturaWaterPure.
Second Faulty Assumption: The Project’s Costs Are Reasonable
It was apparent in 2019 that there were flaws in Ventura Water’s narrative about VenturaWaterPure. Yet, City Hall and Ventura Water continued to follow the dogma unquestioningly. That is until another flaw surfaced. The faulty assumption that Ventura Water could implement VenturaWaterPure at a reasonable cost began to unravel.
Ventura Water hired Carollo Consulting in 2019 to estimate costs for several options to handle the treated wastewater, including VenturaWaterPure. The Carollo report projected VenturaWaterPure’s costs to be $277 million (page 415, Table A-7). In January 2024, the City Council learned of the enormous, additional expense VenturaWaterPure will cost citizens. The cost is over $556 million; $279 million more than the Carollo estimate from five years ago—more than double. There are excuses for the cost overruns, of course. Ventura Water blames inflation and COVID-19 as reasons no one could have predicted. Yet, faced with these higher costs, Ventura Water offers no alternatives to contain costs or provide reliable alternatives. They are wrong not to do so. No one at Ventura Water dares to challenge the VenturaWaterPure dogma. Instead, they place the decision at the feet of the City Council to demand alternatives.
Time To Make A Change
It’s up to the 2024 City Council to meet their fiduciary duty to Ventura’s citizens. This council has more information about costs and technologies than any previous council. Now is the time to examine all reliable alternatives before continuing with VenturaWaterPure. Past actions by City Councils are no longer relevant to any decisions this City Council takes because technological circumstances and costs have changed to achieve VenturaWaterPure’s goals.
Ventura Water commissioned the Carollo Report four years ago to provide options to resolve the Consent Decree. The report identified the under-utilized Advanced Purification Facility in Oxnard as a potential solution to reduce duplication of processing plants and reduce costs. At the time, the Oxnard option was 60%-80% less expensive than building VenturaWaterPure.
City staff and Ventura Water rejected the recommendations outright because Ventura Water wanted to keep “control” of the water and did not trust partnerships with Oxnard or United Water. So, Ventura Water convinced prior City Councils that control and trust were worth the extra $200 million it would cost to “go it alone.” We now know that Ventura Water’s projection has ballooned to $556 million.
Hold Ventura Water Accountable
Prior City Councils have periodically asked Ventura Water to revisit lower cost alternatives. According to Ventura Water Department General Manager Gina Dorrington, “The city staff met with United [Water] and Oxnard [Water] staff several times during the development of the EIR [Environment Impact Report] and again in 2020. We also met with the Oxnard staff in November 2023.”
Meeting with Ventura Water’s counterparts is an ambiguous term. What does it mean exactly? Were new quotes or figures discussed? Was there anything that would resemble a Request for Proposal (RFP)?
So, we asked the Wastewater Division Manager at the Oxnard Water plant. He said there were conversations in November, but they have yet to discuss figures or anything that someone would construe as an RFP.
Words like “met,” or “talked,” or “contacted them” are not formal negotiations or even a reasonable faith effort to negotiate. At the least, Ventura Water misrepresented the exchange in November. At worst, it appears that Ventura Water has no intention to change the dogma surrounding VenturaWaterPure because prior City Councils have given them an unlimited budget and blank check.
It’s time for Ventura Water to stop this behavior; only the City Council can make that happen. If Ventura Water is so confident in the cost analysis presented, why wouldn’t they agree to have a full-scale RFP update from Oxnard Water and United Water? Instead, Ventura Water continues to rely on faulty estimates from Ventura’s internal consultants. For the sake of all ratepayers for this ballooning multimillion-dollar project, why not get outside, independent estimates of the costs? Aren’t we owed that? The answer is yes.
It’s time for the 2024 Ventura City Council to meet its fiduciary duty. It’s time to break the dogma surrounding VenturaWaterPure. The council must force Ventura Water to provide reliable alternatives to VenturaWaterPure. We now know the “cost to go it alone” exceeds the $200 million Ventura Water projected in 2019. Collaborating with other water agencies may be less costly, as the Carollo Report indicated. If Ventura partners with other agencies, demand documented costs for those alternatives. Please do not rely on the estimates and projections of Ventura Water or its consultants.
Tell The City Council To Do Their Fiduciary Duty
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