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The high price of water

The water supply may be uncertain, but one thing is not: Costs for water will rise, officials said.

Palo Alto gets all of its potable water -- 13,500 acre-feet annually -- from Hetch Hetchy, with residents paying an average monthly bill of $58. But costs from a seismic retrofit that's in the works will be passed on to voters. The consumer price could triple.

Palo Alto currently buys water wholesale for $566 per acre-foot (approximately $7.6 million annually), according to Jane Ratchye, Palo Alto's assistant director of utilities for Resource Management.

"That cost is expected to nearly triple in the next nine to 10 years to $1,600 per acre-foot," she said, to pay for major upgrades to the Hetch Hetchy water system that are in the works.

At its Nov. 15 meeting, Bay Area Water Supply and Conservation Agency (BAWSCA) board members expressed concerns regarding cost overruns to the Hetch Hetchy project, currently at $143 million. Those costs, along with interest payments on bonds, will grow with every delay, filtering down to the end-user. Project cost estimates have already risen from $2 billion in 2001 to $4.3 billion in 2005, they said.

One critical section of the project over the Hayward fault will be delayed by 26 months, said Arthur R. Jensen, BAWSCA chief executive officer. Some sections of the system to the South Bay will require special ball bearings that won't arrive from Japan for 18 months. Engineers are puzzling over what sort of water-quality plant would best stand up to disruption on the fault.

There could also be a change in political will that could delay things further.

"A concern is that the mayor will have changed in San Francisco by the time they get to the end of the project. ... Most of the construction will be completed after 2010 (when Newsom's term ends), I believe. ... The people will be different -- and even most of you won't be here -- before this is all over," Jensen told BAWSCA board members at a Nov. 15 meeting in Foster City.

"It's a very complex dance. ... It's like building an airplane in flight," said Michael Carlin, assistant general manager for water at the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission.

Sue Dremann

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