Whether you’re washing clothes, flushing the toilet or running the dishwasher, if you live in San Mateo expect to pay 36 percent more for whatever you send down the sewer.
The City Council unanimously agreed last month to hike sewer rates as it strives to fund a $900 million overhaul of its wastewater treatment plant.
Known as San Mateo’s Clean Water Program, the 10-year capital improvement plan is the city’s response to state mandates it cease discharging raw sewage into the San Francisco Bay. With some of its infrastructure decades old, the city has sought to use the opportunity to upgrade its conveyance and treatment system to bring state-of-the-art technology to San Mateo.
But doing so comes with a hefty price tag. While the drought has had lasting effects across a variety of industries, it’s also been a drain on sewage revenue as San Mateo’s rates are directly tied to water use. So despite having implemented slower rate increases over the past few years, revenue remained flat with a 24 percent shortfall of what was expected. Now San Mateo is now seeking to make up the difference with a 36 percent increase expected to generate $40 million next year, followed by slower rate increases in subsequent years.
Councilmembers argue paying more now will actually help reduce costs later. That’s because increasing rates will make San Mateo more competitive for state revolving loan funds that will enable the city to potentially borrow up to $750 million at a much lower rate.
“Bottom line, over the next 10 years it will save rate payers money,” said Councilman Joe Goethals.
The increase, while steep for a single year, will still result in San Mateo’s rates running about average as compared to other neighboring jurisdictions, according to city staff.
But it may be a tough pill for some to swallow as residents water rates have also increased following the five-year drought. It was a conundrum for many utilities that were urging customers to conserve water while at the same time having to increase rates to cover costs. Now, improvements to sewer systems are also lending to rate increases as well.
“I think our city staff has done a very admirable job in keeping sewer rates low for the last few years and I think our rate increase was unfortunately necessary at this time,” Mayor David Lim said. “The reality is we’re doing a great job as a community lowering our water usage; we’re doing a great job in our community to do things to protect the Bay. But we have old sewer infrastructure, it goes back to the defeat of the Nazis and it needs to be fixed.”
The Clean Water Program was prompted by the State Water Resources Control Board, which ordered San Mateo to cease discharging raw sewage into the Bay. The order was sparked after a series of powerful storms highlighted the limited capacity of San Mateo’s existing infrastructure as stormwater mixed with raw sewage leaked into the environment.
San Mateo shares its Detroit Drive wastewater treatment plant with a few surrounding communities that will also contribute to the costs of upgrades. Aside from servicing more than 90,000 San Mateo residents, the plant supports thousands in Foster City, Hillsborough and the Crystal Springs Sanitation District. Foster City is a 25 percent stakeholder and has opted to increase rates 14.25 percent for each of the next five years instead of a single-year increase.
In San Mateo, a typical single-family home using 5 cubic hundred feet a month, or about 3,740 gallons, will see their monthly sewage bill increase from $45.25 to $61.55 in the coming fiscal year, according to the city.
In following years, increases are expected to drop down to between 8 percent and 12 percent. But in taking lessons learned from the historic drought, San Mateo is contemplating whether its current rate structure tied solely to water use is too volatile. Instead, it will consider including a flat monthly surcharge along with an adjusted percentage tied to consumption, city officials have said.
Construction is anticipated to ramp up during 2018-2021 and by 2025, the city is looking to have rates equate to about $70 million in annual revenue, according to the city.
The sewer revenue will go toward a range of improvements including an underground storage tank that can temporarily capture wastewater during extreme storms until the treatment plant can process it. That project, which proved controversial when the city initially considered placing it in a park before focusing its attentions elsewhere, will be considered during upcoming meetings July 12 and 17.
Its overhaul also includes new technology such as a digester than can turn naturally occurring biogas into compressed natural gas used to fuel city vehicles. It may also look toward implementing ways to recycle water.
“This will be the most state-of-the-art wastewater treatment plant on the West Coast,” Goethals said. “It will serve the population of San Mateo for decades into the future.”
The Public Works Commission will hold a study session on the underground storage facility and the impact of mitigation measures 5:30 p.m. Wednesday, July 12 at City Hall, 330 W. 20th Ave. The July 17 meeting will take place 7 p.m. at City Hall with the City Council hearing a staff presentation of two site alternatives and to hear recommendations of staff and the Public Works Commission. Visit cleanwaterprogramsanmateo.org for more information.
(650) 344-5200 ext. 106