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Menlo Park: City prepares to invest in water system

 

Menlo Park will need to invest heavily, and soon, in the city's municipal water system infrastructure, according to the findings of a report and master plan developed by city staff and consultants.

According to the plan, which was developed with West Yost Associates and approved unanimously by the City Council on May 22, Menlo Park's municipal water system needs $90.3 million in infrastructure improvements between now and 2040. The bulk of that – an estimated $53 million – is needed for projects classified as "very high priority" to replace old infrastructure and improve the system's resilience, especially for earthquake planning and response, the plan says.

The municipal water district covers the far eastern and western territories of the city, specifically Sharon Heights to the west and most of the city east of Middlefield Road. (Most of downtown Menlo Park receives its water from the Bear Gulch District of the California Water Service Company.)

An evaluation of the water system completed by West Yost staff consultants found that many of the pipes used in the water system are made of asbestos cement and are prone to breaking, city engineer Azalea Mitch told the council at an April meeting. Spending to address the system's needs is expected to cost about $42 million to rehabilitate and replace the existing pipes, $23 million to improve the water system's capacity, $19 million to improve the water system's reliability and $6 million for other improvements.

Upgrades, staff needed

One of the major shortcomings identified early in the process is the water department's limited staff. Last year, the council approved hiring two new people to give each staff person fewer water connections to oversee, but the ratio is still high compared with that of neighboring cities, according to Mitch.

In the upcoming fiscal year, the city plans to hire two more full-time employees to improve water system maintenance. It also proposes to spend $6.2 million to replace a water main, re-roof a water reservoir, and develop the city's emergency water supply and storage capacities. Using past funding allocations, the city expects to still have about $61,700 left over in its fund to improve the system.

One way to boost the water service's efficiency recommended in the plan is to automate the process to read water meters. All meters are now read manually, while billing is handled by an outside agency in Arizona. The city also wants to start handling billing procedures in-house, Mitch said.

Installing automatic meter readers could also allow remote monitoring, so that people can be alerted if there are potential leaks or high usage.

Another deficiency in the current system is a storage capacity shortage in the area near the "lower zone" along the bayfront. The plan recommends that the city add thousands of feet of new pipeline to improve the water flow.

For emergencies, the city also plans to build two to three emergency water wells. The first is expected to be completed by the end of this year and the next one or two are planned at capacities that will provide the city with 3,000 gallons per minute, according to the plan.

Finding funding

In an April council discussion, it was suggested that the city fund the infrastructure improvements through an increase to the city's utility users' tax. In 2006, voters approved an increase to a maximum of 3.5 percent, but the city hasn't increased the tax to that level yet. But a funding formula must be developed because costs of water service improvements should be borne by ratepayers, not all city residents.

The water district has, in the past, used a "pay-as-you-go" system for needed improvements – in other words, adjusting rates as needed to pay for the projects as need arises. But staff is recommending that the city explore other options, given the scale of the needed funding, especially options like grants and debt financing over a 20- or 30-year time frame.

Looking forward

The water system master plan, which is intended to function as a 25-year roadmap for addressing the system's needs, evaluates the viability – and necessity – of not just infrastructure improvements, but further projects to promote water conservation and efficiency.

As the city continues to expand based on the new zoning allowed, predictive analyses show it will come increasingly close to the maximum allocation of Hetch Hetchy water the city can claim from the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission by 2040, and could overdraw that allocation during a multi-year drought.

One way to reduce demand is to develop a system for recycled water.

The West Bay Sanitary District is currently building the first recycled water system in Menlo Park in Sharon Heights, with plans to collect wastewater from the nearby households, clean it, and use graywater on the Sharon Heights Country Club and Golf Course, one of the water department's largest water guzzlers. (In 2011, the country club and golf course used about 164,000 gallons of potable water a day, according to city staff.)

Next up, the sanitary district wants to expand the system to SLAC, which also uses large amounts of water in its cooling systems.

Facebook is also building a recycled water system at its campus expansion along Bayfront Expressway, Mitch said.

The city is also looking into how to buy recycled water from the cities of Palo Alto and Redwood City.

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