Santa Rosa is accelerating efforts to find suitable locations for wells that could supply residents with drinking water in an emergency, a move that comes amid an ongoing contract dispute with its longtime consultant on the project.
The city has spent nearly $10 million over more than a decade investigating potential sites for emergency groundwater wells should the supply from the Russian River be interrupted, such as in an earthquake or toxic spill.
But results of the program have been mixed. Of the nine test wells drilled to date, a few have shown promise, but others have come up empty.
"Just because you're looking doesn't mean you'll find, so that's definitely been frustrating," said Dick Dowd, a longtime member of the city's Board of Public Utilities. "I still think it's a good idea to keep looking."
The city currently has wells that can supply it with 4.3 million gallons of water per day in an emergency, provided mostly by two wells on Farmers Lane. But that's far short of the 12.7 million gallons per day that would be needed if there were a disruption in the supply from the Russian River, where the city gets 90 percent of its drinking water.
It's not an idle threat. In the 1970s, a formaldehyde spill from a train shut down the Sonoma County Water Agency's water supply system for about a day. In January a chemical spill into a West Virginia river last month contaminated the water supplies for 300,000 residents.
To ensure the city can provide enough water for the general health and safety of its residents during such an emergency, the city estimates it will need to find an additional supply of 8.4 million gallons per day.
That's far more water than the investigation program, which began in 2003, has been able to identify to date. The program's price tag includes the cost of consultants, well drillers, city staff and the city's Groundwater Master Plan, which was completed last fall.
Now, facing one of the worst droughts in state history, the city is shifting from exploration mode to well construction.
The city recently announced plans to hire a consulting firm that can focus its search for suitable well sites, get four new wells online within three years and explore other supply options such as recharging the aquifer in the winter to make ensure water is available in the summer months.
"We're looking to enter into a contract that will allow us to move forward at a more aggressive pace," said David Guhin, director of the city utilities department.
Anything would be an improvement over the status of the previous well investigation effort, which ground to a halt late last year. Nearly six months later, the contract remains in limbo as the City Attorney's Office reviews the city's agreement with Sebastopol-based environmental consulting firm ECON.
The company, owned by Andy Rodgers, has overseen the drilling and analysis of seven of the nine test wells drilled to date. ECON has a professional services contract with the city and subcontracts out the drilling work to local drillers, Rodgers said.
"We know the drilling world really well," he said.
During the drilling of a test well in Bicentennial Park last summer, a subcontractor delivering portable toilets for Weeks Drilling & Pump Co. of Sebastopol inquired whether the job paid prevailing wages, Rodgers said.