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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.

But the test wells, which have been used to gather data about the aquifer beneath the city, have never been considered public works that would require the payment of prevailing wages, Rodgers said.

When city attorneys reviewed the contract with ECON, however, they stumbled across another problem. They realized that Rodgers was not a licensed contractor, engineer or geologist, City Attorney Caroline Fowler said. While it investigated, the city held up payment of ECON's latest invoice, which included the cost of Weeks' drilling work.

The city is now in the process of paying Weeks directly the $274,165 the company is owed for the work. It continues to review how much it will pay Rodgers, but Fowler said the city by law can't pay ECON for work it was unlicensed to perform.

"There is going to be a certain amount of work that he's not going to get paid for," Fowler said.

Rodgers acknowledges that he isn't personally a licensed contractor or geologist but says all the work was done by licensed drillers and overseen by licensed geologists, geophysicists and hydrogeologists who he hired.

Rodgers is president of ECON, acted as project manager for the program, and said he is a "qualified geologist" under state law, he said.

His contract with the city has never required him to have any specific licenses, only that his firm be qualified to do the work, which he said it is. He said the issue is a very technical one related more to the city's contracting processes than his licensing.

"Only in recent months did we find out the city determined the drilling task to be improperly contracted," Rodgers said.

The city's view of the nature of the work and how contracts for it should be written has apparently evolved. The effort was initially viewed just as data gathering, but more recently the city has come to view the test wells as public assets, city officials said.

The wells are expensive, often costing a half-million dollars each to drill and analyze. Dowd said he hopes at least some of them can be used for park or school irrigation in the future.

The possibility of future uses for the test wells has influenced the city's determination that their drilling ought to be managed through the same public works bidding process as streets, sidewalks and buildings, explained Colleen Ferguson, deputy director of public works.

That means future drilling work will be competitively bid separately from the consulting work. The change makes sense because the next phase of work involves the construction of permanent emergency wells, Ferguson explained.

The city is hoping to select a consultant for the new work by March 17, with approval by the Board of Public Utilities by April 17. The contract calls for work to be underway on one well in the Montgomery Village area by spring 2015 and another in Oakmont by 2016. Two others, in Fountaingrove and a more central city location, are also envisioned to get underway by spring of 2016.

Those locations are informed partly by test results, but also a desire to have the wells spread out to serve different parts of the city.

While it may look like the 11-year-old program hasn't accomplished much to date, it has provided valuable information about the city's hydrology, said Andrew Allen, the city's supervising engineer on the program.

Some areas in east Santa Rosa have shown promise. A test well near Martha Way east of Montgomery High School suggested a possible production rate of 1,000 gallons a minute. A test well in Doyle Park, however, just west of the Rodgers Creek fault, produced just 10 gallons a minute, according to city reports.

"We are narrowing down the potential areas out there," Allen said.

Rodgers said he is proud of the work he's done for the city to date and said several of the test wells he managed could prove valuable. He has yet to release the analysis of the Bicentennial Park well pending resolution of the contract dispute, he said. He declined to say how much he is owed, but said it is "very small" compared to Weeks' invoice. About 80percent of the cost of each test well is for drilling, he said.

Rodgers has no problem with the city changing the way it contracts for the next phase of work, which he said he intends to bid on.

In an effort to resolve the city's concerns about ECON's licensing, Rodgers said he hired one of the geologists he has worked closely with for years to be a full-time employee in his company. He said he may become licensed himself if need be.

"It's never been an issue, but now that it's become an issue, I'm going to take care of that," Rodgers said.

While it was a "huge surprise" when the issue came up and it has been a frustrating process to try to get answers out of the city, he said he's optimistic the matter will be resolved soon.

"I simply look forward to continuing the dialogue with Santa Rosa so this issue can soon be behind us all and the important work of identifying an emergency supply can progress," Rodgers said.

(You can reach Staff Writer Kevin McCallum at 521-5207 or kevin.mccallum@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @citybeater.)