Last Wednesday evening I attended the Community Services District's (CSD) water and sewage meeting held at the Fairgrounds dining room in Boonville. It was a very informative meeting, well-run, speakers kept on topic and kept moving and ending on time. And well attended. I didn't take a head count, but my guess is that about 40 people from the community were there, plus five panelists and two other contributors who sat in the audience, our Supervisor being one of these.
The meeting was organized and run by CSD trustees Valerie Hanelt and Kathleen McKenna. Hanelt opened the meeting with introductions of the various panelists and then talked about what the meeting was about — mainly water, with some sewer being discussed as well. The format of the meeting was a set of questions developed by Hanelt and the CSD that were asked and then answered by the various panelists. Attendees were allowed to ask questions pertaining to what a particular panelist had said; all other questions were held until the end of the "formal" questions.
The first item, before any other questions were asked, was to define what "We" would mean in this context. It was decided that "We" would be the largest, most densly populated part of the Valley (aka Boonville) but it also became clear that it could simply just be a part of that — made of up a group that wanted to move forward with this idea. Ideally, that group would be a contiguous group of landowners.
The first question asked was What would be gained by developing a water system? The answers were that it helps with failing wells, poor water quality, and contaminated water and that it increases fire safety (through hydrants attached to the system fed by a very large steel tank). It is also supposed to be the most cost-effective approach for those sharing the cost. One panelist discussed the very small lots that make up some of the parcels in Boonville; he noted that these small lots would not be allowed under the current zoning rules — the current minimum is 40,000 square feet — just under an acre. He noted there have been problems replacing existing septic systems and that there are fewer choices for the future — wells and septics are going to get too close together and contamination is going to become a problem.
The next question was what would a water system look like and where would the water come from? The answer was that the hardest part of a water system was finding the water; it was noted that it is also difficult to find a location for sewer treatment. The water would come from a well or wells or a reservoir could be created. It was noted that the water would likely have to be treated, then pumped to tanks for distribution. Some concern was expressed about water usage, but it was pointed out that in the absence of growth (meaning more homes and thus more users) the net use would remain the same; people don't increase their water use just because they are sharing the source.
What would a municipal sewer/septic system look like? That was the next question. In one example, a group of landowners decides to do a municipal system. Those participating have their old septic tanks removed and a new one would be installed. This one would take effluent from the home but instead of it going to a leach field on the property, it would be piped to a common leach field. This has the benefit of being the least expensive and easiest to put in and it keeps the water in the watershed. Another option is to have the water treated to some degree; perhaps a vineyard property borders on these homes and wants to use the treated waste water for irrigation in exchange for use of a bit of land? This can be done too; but with treatment comes increased costs.
The next two questions were, Who would be served? And How would it be paid for? The answer to the first is as many as possible to keep the costs down — but it would also be limited by the cost of plumbing. Basically, the costs would have to be evaluated as the discussion of what or whether to move forward proceeded. As for who would pay for it, ultimately it would be the users. One panelist suggested that the County might provide a start-up loan to get things off the ground (when asked later Supervisor Hamburg waffled a bit before saying that yes, he would consider this; this is despite the County having stated in 2009 that they would in fact help with just such a system in the General Plan). This would be a loan that would have to be paid back, of course. It was also suggested that the State might provide a grant for some of the work, but obtaining such a grant would require hard looks at support for the project, how affordable the project is supposed to be, the availability of a location for the system, what the alternatives are, what the impacts are and who would be served.
At one point it was mentioned that Boonville/Anderson Valley has a 28% poverty rate. A panelist also mentioned that Proposition One funds are going to be available in the next four to five years and they are for funding projects like this. Another source could be a USDA rural community loan or grant; again, widespread community support will be needed. One question that came up was what exactly is "community support?" We tend to think of the whole Valley as one big community, but when it comes to this sort of a thing, the community that matters is the one made up of landowners and within that group, it is the owners who would actually be affected that matter. So if you live out on Greenwood Ridge like I do, you don't have any say as to what could happen on Haehl Street, for example (and that's as it should be).
The next question was Water vs. Sewer? The panelists seemed a little divided on which is more important, but all agreed that water is easier and less expensive. There are arguments to be made that a sewer system protects water quality and that if you're opening up trenches for water it would be just as easy to add the sewer lines too ("dig once"). Also, there is the recently approved Proposition 1 water bond money coming online. While some felt water should come first, many thought both should be considered; ultimately, everyone agreed it would be up to the community. On costs, there was some discussion of "eligible costs" vs. "ineligible costs." I think that this referred to the Proposition 1 money, though I am not certain. In any case, with water, most of the infrastructure is paid for except the connection of a home to the system, whereas with sewer, some costs are "eligible" such as tank replacement, but others aren't — such as land acquisition.
How would such a system affect development and how would growth be controlled? This was answered several ways — the bottom line is that the community controls the amount of growth desired. This is backed up by current zoning laws and the engineers for the system would include a growth management plan.
Is everyone within a District required to join? The answer for sewer was "yes." The answer on water was "no, but" — typically whether or not you hook up to the system you still have to pay for the installation, so there's a lot of incentive to join. It was noted that joining would likely increase property value. It was also noted that you probably could use the old well's water for irrigation — with certain safeguards in place.
The discussion then turned to community support. It was suggested that a service area be defined by finding out the level of interest in the affected community and by doing some preliminary investigations. Concerns about growth included a discussion of growth equaling growth of decent housing. There were several other specific questions and answers and the evening was brought to a close at 9pm.
What are my thoughts? I think that a water system is definitely something Boonville landowners should consider. I also lean on the side of the sewer system, but as I don't own land in town, that is easier for me to say, as I won't have to bear the cost. But I think water is key — and there are many businesses, including restaurants, in town that service a lot of folks and clean, safe water is a good thing. I think it is an idea worth pursuing to see if the actual affected landowners are interested and find the payoffs worth the cost. I think it will help property values — it will be easier to sell a home with a good water supply (water being the first thing I'm asked about any listing these days). I also think it is easier to sell a property with a functioning septic system. One way or another someone is going to have to pay for fixing an old system — either by replacing it with a similar system (if land allows) or a more expensive system (if land doesn't allow — and these can go as high as $40,000) or by putting in a community system. But I firmly believe it should be up to the affected landowners, as they will bear the cost one way or another.
For further information or to get involved, please contact Valerie Hanelt at firstname.lastname@example.org. There is also a DVD of the meeting that is available to be checked out at the CSD (Boonville Fire House).