City's choice on water treatment

By Baker City Herald Editorial Board December 03, 2012 09:15 am

We don’t envy Baker City councilors in the decision they will eventually need to make about protecting the city’s drinking water from threats present and, potentially, in the future.

But we agree with their choice last Tuesday, which wasn’t unanimous, to take more time to ponder the matter.

In fact, we recommend the current council not commit the city to spending any more money on water treatment. Four of the seven councilors have only one more meeting before their terms end and they are replaced by the four councilors who were elected Nov. 6. The new councilors — Mike Downing, Barbara Johnson, Kim Mosier and Richard Langrell — should have a chance to look into the city’s water treatment options.

What we know now is that the city needs to have a new level of water treatment in place by October 2016 to comply with rules from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

The city’s only current precaution — adding chlorine to the water — is not effective against such parasites as cryptosporidium and giardia.

The solution city officials have focused on is installing equipment that exposes water to ultraviolet light that inactivates those parasites.

That option, which could cost $2 million or more, is less expensive than another, which is to build a filtration plant.

The projected cost for a filtration plant is $15 million.

But there’s more to this decision than dollars.

Filtration, though more costly, also has significant advantages over UV treatment, which is effective at dealing with certain waterborne parasites but has no other benefits.

For one, a filtration plant would comply not only with the pending 2016 rules, but also with any foreseeable requirements the EPA might impose for drinking water.

Baker City is a rarity among public water systems in that it’s not mandated to filter its water, even though its sources are streams and springs (rather than groundwater).

Just three other cities in Oregon also are exempt from the filtration requirement.

We’re not so naivé as to expect that the federal government won’t impose more stringent regulations on drinking water in the future. The odds probably are better than even that, within the next few decades, the EPA will eliminate the filtration exemption for surface water sources.

Were that to happen, the city would likely have to build a filtration plant, rendering the installation of a UV system essentially a waste of money.

The other credible threat, and possibly the more imminent one, to the city’s water is a wildfire in the 10,000-acre watershed, much of which is densely forested. A large fire could foul streams with ash and dirt, a problem UV light won’t fix but a filtration plant might.

Councilor Beverly Calder, one of the four councilors whose terms end this year, said she thinks that city should choose the treatment option that deals with the 2016 EPA standards as well as conceivable threats beyond that.

Given the limitations of UV treatment, spending less money on that equipment now, to avoid the bigger bill from a filtration plant, might turn out to be a bad bargain in the end.

What councilors need now — or, rather, next year when the four new officials take their seats — are estimates for how much the city would have to boost water bills to pay the long-term debt it would incur from either type of treatment.

Councilors also need to understand the full range of benefits a filtration plant would offer compared with UV treatment, and investigate the possibility of state and federal grants or low-interest, long-term loans to cover some of the cost.

Although we applaud the current City Council’s concern for sparing water customers from unnecessary expenses, a filtration plant might represent a better investment if it’s built at current costs.

With the ability to spread the cost over decades and about 4,500 ratepayers, the difference in monthly bills between the UV system and a filtration plant might be negligible.

One thing’s sure, though: Nobody would be pleased if the city ends up buying both types of treatment, the “cheap” UV system now and the expensive filtration plant a decade or two in the future.