The Sonoma County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday is set to advance one of its most hot-button projects: a bid to introduce fluoride to most of the county's drinking water to improve dental health.
A new county report concludes that move, though still in its study phase, would be feasible, although it could also be complex and expensive.
The issue has been at the center of a long-running local debate, pitting medical experts and other supporters against critics skeptical of government-driven health initiatives and mainstream science.
The new report could bring fiscal watchdogs into the mix.
Based on preliminary estimates, the project could cost up to $8.5 million in capital upgrades to the county's central water system, plus ongoing upkeep starting at $973,000 a year, the report found. It was released Thursday and authorized by the Board of Supervisors last year.
The project would affect three quarters of the county, including 350,000 residents served by the Sonoma County Water Agency in Windsor, Santa Rosa, Rohnert Park, Cotati, Petaluma, Sonoma, Forestville and the Valley of the Moon. More than 50,000 Novato-area residents served by the county Water Agency also would get fluoridated water for the first time.
Pam Jeane, an assistant general manager at the Water Agency, called the project's cost "significant" while noting that projects this summer, including aqueduct, pipeline and creek restoration work, are set to cost a total of at least two to three times more.
The potential impact on ratepayers is unknown. At least one Water Agency customer -- the district serving the Novato area -- contends state law forbids such costs being passed on to ratepayers. The district could challenge the move partly on those grounds.
The Board of Supervisors on Tuesday is set to authorize additional financial analysis and engineering studies, at a cost of about $103,000. A final decision on water fluoridation could come late this year or in early 2014.
The latest interim step has reignited the decades-long local debate among supporters and opponents of water fluoridation for dental health. The standoff is likely to continue through two public meetings, including the Tuesday afternoon hearing before supervisors and one today, from 3:30 to 5 p.m. inside a county health office at 3313 Chanate Road in Santa Rosa.
Officials say water fluoridation would be a key way to combat what they've called a dental health "crisis" in Sonoma County. Studies have shown high rates of dental disease in the area, affecting especially low-income and minority children.
"We have a huge oral health problem," said Dr. Lynn Silver Chalfin, the county's health officer, who oversaw the new report to county supervisors.
Fluoride is a chemical compound and was introduced to U.S. drinking water nearly 70 years ago. About three-quarters of the nation's population served by public water systems -- or about 196 million people -- are now receiving fluoridated water.
The measure is backed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the surgeon general, the World Health Organization and the American Dental Association, which called it "the single most effective public health measure to prevent dental decay."
But opponents of the county's proposal continue to raise concerns about the health and environmental implications of fluoridated water. They cite studies found online and points promoted by a vocal national campaign that opposes municipal water fluoridation.