Agencies vie for local sewer system; LAFCO will decide



By Tina Richards

A public hearing held to collect input on the future operations and maintenance of the Area 7 sewer system was attended largely by representatives of the two agencies who have submitted applications to take it on. 

The East Orange County Water District (EOCWD) is vying with the Irvine Ranch Water District (IRWD) to take over sewer system service in an area covering unincorporated North Tustin, El Modena and portions of Orange and Tustin. The Local Area Formation Commission (LAFCO) has oversight responsibilities for changes in Orange County governmental infrastructure and boundaries, and will make the decision. The agency invited the public to provide comments at a June 17 meeting.

Area 7 sewer system is currently operated by the OC Sanitation District. It wants to divest itself of small local sewer systems so it may concentrate on larger countywide facilities. Last year it approached EOCWD and asked the water company if it would be interested in operating the sewers in its area.  EOCWD is a small water wholesaler that supplies the four local providers (Orange, Tustin, IRWD, Golden State) as well as retail service to 1,179 customers.  Its water service area nearly mirrors the Area 7 sewer system footprint.

Is bigger better?
Before IRWD had expressed an interest in Area 7, EOCWD had collected support letters from Tustin, Orange and the Foothills Communities Association, all of which believed that the local control offered by the agency would benefit residents.  EOCWD is headquartered in a double-wide trailer in the City of Orange, knows many of its customers by name, and can reach any part of its service area in 20 minutes.

Although General Manger Lisa Uhland has 33 years’ experience with sewer systems, EOCWD itself does not.  IRWD, which applied for Area 7 just days before the deadline, operates sewer systems in Irvine, Lake Forest, portions of Tustin, Newport Beach and Costa Mesa, and provides water to 370,000 residents over 181 square miles.  It believes its experience and ability to spread costs over a wider customer base trumps EOCWD’s proximity and knowledge of the area.

“It’s David versus Goliath,” Lisa Uhland said after the LAFCO meeting.

LAFCO’s Ben Legbandt gave the audience an overview of what’s at stake.  The sewer system operator must assess the condition of 170 miles of pipe, clean the lines, prevent spills and regulate capacity to avoid overflows.  It must be prepared to replace piping before it fails.  The local system has a 100-year life span and is now about 50 years old.

Close competition
Under the county sanitation district, emergency response time to Area 7 is within 60 minutes; the system is cleaned every 12 to 18 months, and conditions assessed every five years.  EOCWD says it will respond in 20 minutes, clean every 12-18 months and complete a system-wide assessment every five years.  IRWD reports it will respond in 30 minutes, clean pipes on a 12- to 24-month schedule and assess the system every 10 years.  The county budget is currently $1,048,753 per year.  EOCWD says it can operate the same system for $803,944; IRWD says it can do it for $822,759.  

Of the eight individuals who provided public comments, four were affiliated with IRWD, one was an EOCWD board member and three were private citizens.  Those with a past or present association with IRWD focused on its experience, qualifications and knowledge of regulations. Former IRWD General Manager Paul Jones elaborated on the seriousness of sewage spills, mandatory fines that result from them and the need to understand the clean-up process.  A former IRWD employee applauded the company’s engineering staff, and its available inventory of equipment and resources.  Citizen Dick Schmidt echoed that sentiment.  “IRWD has staff, it has engineers,” he said.  “I think it is the most capable.”

North Tustin’s John Sears was one of two unaffiliated speakers who favored the smaller EOCWD.  He noted that OC Sanitation had itself voted to award Area 7 to EOCWD and that the 16-square-mile labyrinth of sewer pipes was within that agency’s sphere of influence.  He added that local representation was important to residents.  He also reported that EOCWD is operated prudently, has no debt and keeps its water rates low, with no tiers.  “I am confident that it will have a well-operated and financially stable service plan,” he said. 

Local motion
Marilyn Holmes agreed.  “Both IRWD and EOCWD are good agencies,” she said.  “But East Orange understands our issues.  We don’t want to become another Irvine.”

The “local control” angle also held the Orange City Council to its support of EOCWD a week earlier. IRWD had recently asked the council for a support letter, and the issue was heard at its June 9 meeting.  Councilmen Mark Murphy and Mike Alvarez wanted to support IRWD’s application as well as EOCWD’s, noting that a neutral stance would encourage competition between them, which would ultimately benefit the city and taxpayers. Mayor Tita Smith and Councilman Fred Whitaker opposed the second letter, arguing that supporting both contenders is like supporting neither of them.  Kim Nichols broke the tie, noting that competition was beneficial at the beginning, “but what happens 10 years from now?  What will happen to rates then?  I think we’re better served by a local source.”  The vote was three to two against a second letter.

LAFCO is continuing to accept written public comments and will discuss the matter at its July 8 meeting.   A decision is not expected until August.  “We look at what’s best for the area and the region,” LAFCO Executive Officer Carolyn Emery explained.  “We’ve done an extensive municipal service review.  We may decide in the end that OC Sanitation is the best operator and reject both IRWD and EOCWD.”