For Freeland sewer supporters, the news is not good.
A finalized rate study performed for the Freeland Water and Sewer District’s Phase 1A project estimates that monthly water rates for customers would range between a low of $114 and a high of $278 per unit of water used — about 140 gallons a day. For some high-use customers, commercial businesses that averaged over 20 units a month during peak times of the year, the monthly price tag would be in the thousands of dollars.
“Given the operating and capital costs projected in the Comprehensive Plan for this system, our conclusion is that without a commitment from the State or County for at least $5 million of additional grant funding, it would be difficult to responsibly move forward with construction of this system,” wrote Gordon Wilson, a senior program manager with FCS Group, the consulting firm the water district hired to perform the rate study.
The 30-page rate analysis examined the estimated $12.9 million project and provided a range of costs, monthly charges and probabilities on a number of potential scenarios. The sums took into account several variables, such as levels of grant funding, growth and general facility charges. At the end of the day, it found that, even in a best case scenario, the monthly costs would exceed that of any other known city in the state based on a 2014 survey by the Association of Washington Cities (or AWC).
“Even a $100 sewer rate in Freeland — with the improbable assumption of the system being 100 percent paid for by grants—would cost a property owner with 1.3 ERUs [units of water] $130 per month,” Wilson wrote. “A couple of cities in the AWC survey were over $100 per month in 2014, but just barely. No city in this survey even approached a charge for 7.5 ccf/month of $156, or even $130.”
District commissioners were briefed on the results in February, and got a sneak peak of early predictions just before Christmas this past year. It, along with other design and property challenges, sparked a proposal last month to shelve the project indefinitely. The board elected to press on, but commissioners and district leaders are less than hopeful the hurdles can be overcome.
“I’m not optimistic, but I want to hear what the community says on whether they think this is affordable,” said Commissioner Eric Hansen in a Thursday interview with The Record. “That’s the key question.”
The water district will hold a special meeting on the sewer project next week specifically to receive feedback from the business community, which makes up the bulk of property owners within the phase 1A area. The meeting is at 3 p.m. Monday, April 10 at Whidbey Water Services, 5585 Lotto Ave. in Freeland. A business meeting will follow at 5:30 p.m.
Hansen said the goal is to make clear to these stakeholders the facts: the design of the project, the funding challenges, the technical hurdles and, perhaps most importantly, what it will cost them. He added that despite regular news coverage, district commissioners have heard little from the 80 or so property owners in the phase 1A boundaries. Decision makers want to know what they think, he said.
“I’d like it to be a community decision, rather than just a board decision,” Hansen said.
Chet Ross, president of the Freeland Chamber of Commerce, said he hasn’t discussed the issue with members since this past December when the district temporarily put the project on hold due to the release of preliminary rate results. At the time, the consensus was that the project was too expensive.
“Most of the people I talked to said it was too much,” he said.
The proposed project is the latest edition of sewer plans that have been pitched for more than a decade. It’s one of the smallest versions so far but, like its predecessors, has been rife with problems. The project was initially estimated to cost about $9 million, but that cost has since ballooned to the current $12.9 million, according to Wilson’s study. Unexpected drainage issues with its chosen effluent dispersal site, a 24-acre property between Highway 525 and Scenic Avenue, have presented a host of challenges.
Boiled down, the soil there may not percolate as quickly as earlier testing suggested, which put into question daily capacity rates and encouraged design changes and technologies with unknown life spans.
The setbacks have been sorely disappointing to commissioners and project leaders alike. They’ve spent years trying to secure millions in grant funding, and shepherding over feasibility and multiple soil analyses, including an infiltration study that began this week, only to learn that the project appears to be a financial bust.
“That’s the tragedy of it all,” said Andy Campbell, water district manager.
The infiltration study that began this week saw the installation of two vadose zone wells on the west and east ends of the property. About 3.5 million gallons of water will be pumped through the wells for a period of 30 days. The study is a test run for the new wells, but is primarily meant to test the surrounding soil’s drainage capacity.
Initially the district planned to use basins or pits to disperse treated effluent, but earlier testing suggested the site would only handle about 30,000 gallons per day. That was far short of the target 77,000 gallons per day, which is needed to serve the phase 1A area. The realization sparked the plan to use vadose wells — basically perforated pipes that drain effluent deep into the ground rather than just on the surface. The hope is that they will handle the required 77,000 gallons a day.
Campbell said he was initially hopeful and believed the project would move forward, but admitted that his confidence has also waned.
“I was really excited for awhile that we were going to pull it off and get it done,” he said. “I’ve lost all that enthusiasm.”
Editor’s note: A previous version of this story included inaccurate testing results. The basins were found to handle only 30,000 gallons per day. Also, the new vadose wells are hoped to handle 77,000 gallons per day.