San Jose pumps the brakes on Valley Water water-recycling plan
An aerial view of San Jose's regional wastewater treatment plant is pictured in this file photo

In an effort to address drought and increase local groundwater supply, the Santa Clara Valley Water District is fast-tracking a plan to purify and recycle more water in San Jose.

But city elected leaders — concerned for the environment and limited staff resources due to COVID-19 — are pumping the brakes and want more time to negotiate. Councilmembers met Friday with Valley Water’s board of directors for a special meeting to hash out the issue.

Valley Water is the wholesale provider of water to companies across the county. One of its primary sources is groundwater, but overpumping groundwater can be harmful to the environment and depletes essential drought reserves.

To replenish the local groundwater supply, Valley Water is looking to expand San Jose’s purification facility — the largest wastewater treatment plant in the county.

“It’s important to replenish our groundwater to prevent the ground from sinking, which is called subsidence,” Kristen Struve, Valley Water’s assistant officer of the water supply division, told San José Spotlight. “This (project) has several benefits: We will have a drought-resilient water supply, we will keep our groundwater full for storage and we will prevent infrastructure impacts from subsidence.”

The conversation to expand San Jose’s existing wastewater purification plant got tense Friday.

Valley Water CEO Rick Callender pushed for San Jose to sign an agreement to allow the expansion and to purchase water from San Jose over a 76-year period. But City Manager Dave Sykes insisted San Jose needs more time to discuss concerns about the environmental impacts and the city’s responsibilities, especially as it wrestles with COVID-19 recovery.

City leaders said like Environmental Services Director Kerrie Romanow — who would typically work with Valley Water on this project — is tied up in the Emergency Operations Center, he said.

Local lawmakers discuss a purification project that would replenish the groundwater supply.

“I am very sorry if our reality is inconvenient for you,” Sykes said. “But that is our reality, so we need to pick a straightforward way to do this, or we’re not going to be able to support it.”

The city is chiefly concerned about the environmental impact of additional wastewater treatment on the bay.

San Jose’s water treatment facilities use filtration water to remove viruses and pollutants. The waste product is called brine. The brine gets disposed of in the bay and is safe for the ecosystem — in certain amounts. City officials worried expanding the purification would potentially create more brine as more water goes through the filtration process.

“We do believe the brine poses a risk to the environment and we need a lot more information,” Romanow said. “We don’t want to sign on to something we are not comfortable doing.”

Struve told San José Spotlight there wouldn’t be any additional negative environmental impacts.

The city’s other concern is that Palo Alto was offered to host a new plant and San Jose leaders want to make sure the city is offered a similar and fair agreement.

The Valley Water board signed an agreement with Palo Alto in 2019 to potentially build its new regional wastewater facility there.

That agreement gives Valley Water the option to purchase a minimum 9 million gallons per day of treated wastewater from Palo Alto for up to 76 years. It will pay up to $16 million for the wastewater treatment facility. San Jose agreed to negotiate with Valley Water providing they got the same agreement.

But Romanow worries Palo Alto is not being asked to be responsible for managing the waste byproducts like San Jose.

Councilmember Sylvia Arenas worried about how the project could affect water rates over time.

“We rely on Valley Water for rates. Everything has a consequence: the projects we invest in, the increases that we have over the years,” Arenas said. “I still want to learn more about the difference between the Palo Alto project and the project proposed to us.”

If San Jose cuts a deal with Valley Water, the board would need to decide which city will get the facility.

Valley Water prefers to build the expanded facility in San Jose, officials said, because Palo Alto doesn’t have any existing Valley Water treatment plants as San Jose does. Right now, Valley Water only uses recycled water for uses including toilet-flushing and irrigation. But the potential is there for creating more drinking water once Valley Water gets its new facility, Struve said.

If San Jose signs the agreement, Valley Water would study environmental impacts and select a private company to finance the estimated $600 million project at no cost to San Jose.

Officials say the project will help cut down on rate increases if completed in San Jose. Valley Water hopes to complete the project by 2028.

San Jose leaders are expected to meet again in two weeks to further discuss a potential deal.

Contact Carly Wipf at [email protected] or follow @CarlyChristineW on Twitter.

Editor’s Note: Valley Water CEO Rick Callender serves on San José Spotlight’s Board of Directors.

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