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By MIKE McCOY Press Democrat Staff Writer
In a vote that Mayor Janet Condron called a "historic moment" for Santa Rosa, the City Council on Tuesday authorized construction to begin on its long-awaited Geysers wastewater disposal project.
But the decision to award a $15.7 million contract to Mountain Cascade of Livermore to build the first eight miles of the 41-mile pipeline project came amid promises by the project's leading legal protagonists to stop the pipeline before it reaches The Geysers steam fields.
Tim Barnard, president of the 235-member Alexander Valley Association, and Les Perry, association attorney, said they hope the project and its litigation drag out long enough that a new City Council can be elected.
Perry said it's his contention that the city has the right to break its contract with Calpine Corp. becau se the $15 million study on which the city selected The Geysers option was recently deemed inadequate by Superior Court Judge Lloyd von der Mehden.
Calpine is partnering with the city and is putting up about $44 million to build a series of wastewater injection wells at The Geysers to produce steam, electricity and profits.
Even if it is legally possible, Condron said, "I have not seen any interest by anyone on our council to cancel the contract."
With four of the council's seven seats up for election in November, Condron would not "speculate" on what a new council might do.
But she pointed out that any shift from The Geysers' project could trigger another expensive round of studies and construction delays certain to drive costs well beyond the $132 million the project will cost Santa Rosa and its three regional treatment partners -- Rohnert Park, Cotati and Sebastopol.
Condron also noted Calpine has been the only entity to step forward in the past 15 years to help the city solve its wastewater disposal problem.
"We tried to come up with agricultural projects, we tried to come up with all-agricultural re-use for the water but those solutions were unavailable" because no one stepped forward, Condron said.
"My long-term forecast is we're building the pipeline to The Geysers and we'll go through the battles we have to," she said.
The council's unanimous decision to award the construction contract Tuesday was the result of a partial settlement it reached with the Alexander Valley Association.
The association sued the city two years ago, claiming its $15 million study had informational shortcomings and von der Mehden last month agreed.
But the AVA and city continued to try to reach a partial settlement in the case to allow the city to begin construction and not lose a $101 million, low-interest state loan.
The agreement, approved 8-1 by the AVA's executive board Monday night, allows the city to build the southerly end of the pipeline and also clears the way for Calpine to build on its Geysers property.
In exchange, the association gained several concessions, including a guarantee the city will provide some wastewater from the pipeline for agricultural irrigation.
The City Council had agreed to spend an extra $20 million to widen the pipeline along most of its route in case farmers wanted any leftover wastewater. To date, the city has no signed takers.
Bob Anderson, executive director of United Winegrowers, said he has 18 property owners with a combined 3,000 acres between Windsor and Alexander Valley willing to take 1 billion or 2 billion gallons of water from the pipeline each year.
While the partial settlement does not establish how much water the group, the North County Water Conservation Corp., will get, it does provide that some will be forthcoming.
Anderson said the agreement between the AVA and the city "is a win for all."
While the agreement allows the city to go forward, the association won several concessions, including:
Despite the agreement, Barnard said the AVA still intends to stop the pipeline before it reaches The Geysers by convincing the city to opt for an all-agricultural irrigation project.
He said the association agreed to let Calpine build its share of the project "because it's on their land. We told them though that we will do everything we can to persuade the city to get out of the contract."
Barnard said the association will continue to fight Santa Rosa in court until that goal is achieved or the city relents on its own.
But he admitted his group's power to stop the project is no sure thing. Environmental studies, as informational documents "are fixable," he said. If and when Santa Rosa's original study is amended to the judge's satisfaction, Santa Rosa would likely be cleared to proceed.
Estimates are it may take up to a year for the city to provide the information the judge wants. But he has yet to make his ruling final and the city is hoping to provide him with the information he needs in hopes of shortening the waiting period.
The pipeline would pump 11 million gallons of wastewater to The Geysers daily, about 4 billion gallons a year.
The city hopes to have the project operational by late 2002. The contract awarded Tuesday calls for construction on the first leg to begin this June and be completed by next April.