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Pipeline project could start June 1
By MIKE McCOY Press Democrat Staff Writer
In an agreement that could end 15 years of frustration, Santa Rosa's city leaders tonight could approve a partial settlement that would clear the way for the city to begin building its $132 million Geysers wastewater disposal project.
City Attorney Rene Chouteau and Santa Rosa attorney Les Perry, who represents the 235-member Alexander Valley Association, said Monday the two sides were nearing an agreement that would allow Santa Rosa to begin construction on the southerly end of the 41-mile pipeline by June 1.
"I feel very optimistic there will be an agreement between the association and the City Council. We are very close," Chouteau said.
"All I can say is we're working diligently toward it and it's beneficial to both sides," Perry said.
The agreement, if approved by the Alexander Valley Association's leadership in time for today's City Council meeting, would clear the way for the council tonight to award a $15.7 million contract to build two legs, a total of eight miles.
"We can't go anywhere until they (AVA) sign it," said Richard Dowd, chairman of the city's Board of Public Utilities, which previously recommended the council award the construction contract.
Even if an agreement is reached, Perry said the association's 2-year-old lawsuit challenging the $15 million study upon which the city chose The Geysers' project will remain intact.
Sonoma County Superior Court Judge Lloyd von der Mehden last month ruled the study failed to adequately consider alternative routes and did not sufficiently address the growth-inducing impacts of the project.
The city and AVA have been in talks with von der Mehden since, trying to decide how to proceed to satisfy the judge's concerns. But both sides also have been meeting independently with Superior Court Judge Laurence Sawyer who has acted as a mediator to reach settlement on key issues.
Neither Chouteau nor Perry would disclose the critical details of the agreement, but those knowledgeable say it involves several key points, including:
Mayor Janet Condron, commenting last week on the extensive talks between both sides, said she's "extremely hopeful" they will prove productive.
She said although legal issues and two other lawsuits filed by the AVA still must be resolved, she doesn't believe the city will be putting its money at risk should it award the construction contract tonight.
"There has never been a more comprehensive environmental study done on a project," Condron said, adding that any informational gaps cited by von der Mehden will be filled to his satisfaction.
"We wouldn't be going ahead if we weren't extremely confident we could complete the project. We're not stupid," she said.
City officials estimate inflationary costs alone will drive up the cost of the project $3 million for every year it's delayed.
"Obviously, there are trade-offs," Condron said. "We have to look at what it costs us every day we wait versus the costs of continuing the legal battle. We're also under orders (by state water quality officials) to stop putting our treated water into the Russian River," she said.
While city officials hope to have an agreement by tonight, their optimism is tempered by past agreements with AVA's leadership that tried to resolve differences over The Geysers project, only to see those agreements overturned in a vote by the AVA's full membership.
"We're hoping," Condron said with her fingers crossed, "that we'll be able to pursue the whole thing once we get started."
Tim Barnard, president of the AVA, said he's also hoping a deal can be struck but said late Monday afternoon that "at this point there isn't a deal."
Whether there is, he said, "depends on how much the city doesn't want us to file an injunction."
Since 1986, the city has been under orders to find a substitute to the Russian River as its primary disposal site for billions of gallons of highly treated wastewater.
The Geysers' project calls for the city to pump 11 million gallons of wastewater to the steam fields daily, about 4 billion gallons a year. Once there it would be injected underground to produce steam, electricity and profits for Calpine, which is spending $44 million on its share of the project.
The project is expected to be operational by late 2002. That's seven years later than state water quality officials originally told the city it had to be out of the river.