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With all holes barred, Brawley ready to celebrate opening of its water treatment plant

March 05, 2001|By DARREN SIMON, Staff Writer

BRAWLEY — In April 1999 this city was to have a grand opening celebration for its multimillion-dollar water treatment plant, but things didn't go as planned.

Cracks and holes appeared in the water and sludge ponds during testing the preceding March. In the next year the city spent more than $1 million to repair the ponds and bring the plant on line.

Now, after nearly two years of delays, the city has scheduled another grand opening. This time, however, city officials know the water plant works — it's been in operation since July.

The celebration will take place March 23 at the water plant, which sits on the bluff overlooking Cattle Call Park. The city is inviting such officials as Gov. Gray Davis to the celebration.

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City Manager Jerry Santillan said this morning the process has been a long journey.

"I think it is time to showcase to the community that we have capacity for future growth," Santillan said.

The water plant's troubles date to the early 1990s and include periods of controversy as the project came under fire as did council members who pushed for the new plant.

In the early 1990s the city was mandated by state health officials to upgrade the city's water service.

Council members at the time decided it would be more cost—effective to build a new water plant than to repair and upgrade the old plant on Western Avenue.

The city set plans to build a new plant, hired an engineering firm to design the facility and set in motion a series of water-rate increases to cover the costs of the new plant.

However, in the mid-1990s the first round of controversy erupted as it was learned the water plant would cost more than city officials had expected.

That discovery led to new arguments alleging the council was making a mistake in building a new water plant. Some residents argued it would be more cost-effective to repair the old water plant.

It was then that city officials decided to redesign the plant and to divide the project into smaller pieces, with each piece to be built by a different contractor.

City officials hoped in doing so they could reduce the cost of the project.

Throughout the discussion, some residents started an effort to recall two council members who were pushing for the water plant — Councilman Steve Vasquez and former council member Daniel Paramo.

That recall effort led to another recall effort by those in support of the water plant project against Councilwoman Jo Shields, who argued the council should take a look at upgrading the old water plant.

In the end, neither side followed through with a recall vote.

As work got under way on the new treatment plant, the controversy faded — but not for long.

Another round of controversy started when the city became locked in a legal dispute with Cornerstone Construction, the company contracted to do the initial excavating work and build the ponds for the plant.

Cornerstone walked away from the project before it was finished, stating the city had failed to pay for work being done by the company. That legal dispute was the first of what would become a larger legal battle after the plant was built.

By 1999 all phases of the water plant, which came with an $18 million price tag, had been built. That March the city tested the plant while preparing to bring it on line in April.

During testing cracks and holes appeared in the two water ponds and two sludge ponds, so much so that the ponds could not retain water.

All plans for a grand opening celebration were put on hold and the city spent months trying to determine how best to repair the damage, find any other problems with the ponds and make sure problems do not reoccur.

In the end, the city spent more than $1 million on repairing the ponds. A bulk of that cost went toward lining the ponds with plastic.

The city continued its legal battle with Cornerstone. While Cornerstone had filed a lawsuit against the city, the city had filed its own lawsuit against Cornerstone for not finishing the project. When the problems occurred, the city added the repair costs to its lawsuit.

The legal fight ended when the two sides reached a settlement in which Cornerstone would pay the city $375,000, much less than the city had sought.

In July 2000, after a year of tests, the city brought the water plant online. City officials said since then the plant has provided quality water service to city residents.

But work on the city's water service is on-going.

"We are excited the water plant is up and running," Santillan said. "The next step is to implement the pipeline program."

Santillan said the city will spend $5 million on upgrading pipelines throughout the city. He added the goal is to create a loop of pipelines so the water pressure each resident and business receives will be equal.

He said with the current pipeline system, the water pressure varies throughout the city.

"We still have a long ways to go," Santillan said.

Still, city officials have said the new water treatment plant has the capacity to handle up to 15 million gallons of water per day and that can be expanded to 30 million gallons per day.

Santillan said that capacity will allow the city to handle residential, business and industrial growth.

Santillan pointed out that the water plant helped attract a beef-processing plant to the city. In addition, he said the new water plant will enable the city to meet the needs of San Diego State University, which has plans to build a North County campus near Brawley.

Santillan said the goal is to use the water plant as a selling point to attract future development.

Staff Writer Darren Simon can be reached at 337-4082.

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