Isn’t it about time for Cottonwood’s City government to come clean about the operation and condition of the existing main sewer treatment plant before plunking down $8.5 million of taxpayer money to build another facility in Riverfront Park? And along the way, aren’t citizens due a clear explanation of how in three short years, with little or no construction occurring within Cottonwood, that the capacity of the City’s sewer treatment plant has shot up from operating at 50 percent capacity to operating at 75 percent capacity?
An examination of City Hall records since 2007 raises questions about the reliability of the capacity estimates provided the public and Council for the past three years. For example, when City staff were queried by the City Council on February 20, 2007, about the impact 400 plus homes in the Mesquite Hills addition would have on existing sewer capacity, staff replied “that the effect would be minimal and will not jeopardize the existing system.” Staff said that: “No problems were anticipated.”
The former City Manager said in response to the capacity query that “there would [be] no adverse effects to wastewater treatment capabilities since capacity was available.” He went on to explain that “For several years there has been no significant increase in volume of effluent requiring treatment, despite continued growth.” “This project,” he said, “does not trigger a recalculation of when an expansion to the treatment plant needs to be on line.”
The main sewer treatment plant capacity was also questioned in March, 2007 by the Planning and Zoning Commission. The Commissioners asked City staff about Mesquite Hills and the possibility of overloading the existing sewer treatment plant. Staff responded, according to P&Z minutes, that it was their understanding that the plant was only at “50 percent capacity.” The Commission concluded, after being reassured regarding capacity, that because “the sewage plant is only at 50 percent capacity … we can afford expansion.”
A tip-off that a possible campaign to build a sewer plant at Riverfront Park in the not too distant future may be brewing appeared in commentary contained in the 2009 Cottonwood budget. The commentary stated: “The City of Cottonwood wastewater treatment facility is gradually getting to its capacity. It is expected that with the current growth patterns the City will need to establish some satellite wastewater treatment facilities.” What growth patterns? And can anyone explain how in two years the sewer plant can leap from “no significant increase in volume” at “50 percent” capacity to “gradually getting to capacity?”
Capacity of the main sewer treatment plant was raised a third time with staff on May 26, 2009, at a Council Budget Work session. At that session, Councilor Darold Smith specifically asked City staff how close to capacity the main sewer treatment plant was and its maximum capacity. Staff replied that “the plant currently operated at 70 percent.” No explanation was made about the huge jump from 50 percent capacity in 2007 to 70 percent in 2009.
Incredibly, only three weeks ago, when the Council considered a second-phase feasibility study for the Riverfront sewer plant, staff reported that “the main treatment plant . . . already was being utilized at 75 percent capacity.” Once again, no explanation for the increase accompanied the statement.
It would seem that the final nail was driven into the existing main sewer treatment plant’s coffin when City staff also reported three weeks ago that the plant had become “obsolete.” Good thing Mesquite Hills and the Coppergate Industrial/Business Center, both approved in 2007, haven’t materialized. This new staff assessment also says something about the 2003 award to the existing sewer treatment plant as the “Best Environmental Engineering Project for the entire state of Arizona.”
So, what’s a citizen to do? In 2007 you’re told the sewer plant is at 50 percent capacity, has been for years despite growth, and can easily accommodate hundreds, if not thousands of new homes and the Coppergate Business and Industrial Center. Then in 2009, when neither the homes nor Coppergate were built, you’re told the main sewer plant is nearing 70 percent capacity. A year after that, capacity has magically jumped to 75 percent and the plant has been labeled “obsolete.”
How reliable are these claims? Does anyone suspect the current capacity claims may have something to do with the $13 million in sewer reserves that a handful of citizens and this newspaper eventually forced the City to concede existed? Or, that increased capacity estimates will help persuade citizens a sewer plant is needed? After all, a Council majority appears desperate to spend $8.5 million of the $13 million reserve as soon as possible on a Riverfront Park sewer plant without first getting voter approval for it. Or, maybe the capacity information given to citizens during the tumultuous effort by a Council majority to allow the Mesquite Hills Addition to be built was incorrect? Or, maybe, something strange is going on and sewer capacity is mysteriously and quickly moving toward a point of overflow. Where would you place your bet?