WHITTIER — The water system that serves about 60% of the city's homes and businesses has many critical deficiencies and will eventually be contaminated by a "toxic plume" that is seeping toward city wells, a consulting firm has found.
City Manager Thomas Mauk predicted that water bills for people served by the city Water Department could double in the next few years to help pay for repairs to the 50-year-old system.
Last week, the City Council took the first step toward solving one of the problems by authorizing $270,000 to repair two faulty water pumps. Without the repairs, parts of the city might have experienced water shortages this summer, said Louis F. Sandoval, director of public services.
The council also raised water rates, effective March 1. Bills for a typical household will increase $1.25 per month, to an average of $13.79 per month.
The repairs, however, are only the start of what Ott Water Engineers of Redding has advised the city to do to improve its water system. The $56,000 report recommends that the city spend nearly $9.5 million on the system in the next five to 10 years, and consider spending an additional $4.5 million to build a water treatment plant. Ott's study, which took several months, reviewed water quality, demand and existing facilities.
Whittier wells, on the east side of the 605 Freeway south of the Whittier Narrows Recreation Area, will be contaminated with trichloroethylene and perchloroethylene within five to 20 years, the report found. The carcinogenic toxins, believed to have been dumped into the soil by unknown businesses decades ago, have already contaminated wells in the San Gabriel Valley.
The federal Environmental Protection Agency will attempt to contain the contaminants before they reach water systems south of Whittier Narrows, including Whittier's. Failing that, the EPA has said it may make money available from the federal Superfund to pay for treatment plants or pipelines to bring in fresh water.
But actual cleanup may not begin here for many years, EPA officials say. "It is very difficult to say whether a city in the contamination area should begin doing something to protect its supply," said Paula Bisson of the EPA, who oversees Superfund money allocated for cleanup projects in California.
Gene R. Andrews, project manager for Ott, said the water report did not consider Superfund as a potential revenue source for Whittier because there is no precedent for it being used to clean up low-level contamination.
"I think there is very little credibility in that possibility," he said.
One suggested solution for Whittier is to buy water from the Metropolitan Water District and mix it with the city's water to make it drinkable, the report said. However, the city would have to spend $4 million to build a pipeline to tie into the MWD system. City officials last week opened talks with the MWD to explore the possibility of buying water.
But city officials said that while they will study the Ott recommendations, they are not convinced all of them are necessary. They said they are especially skeptical about a recommendation calling for construction of four water tanks at a cost of $4 million in the event of a water shortage.
"You have to think carefully before you spend large amounts for something that may only help us one-half of 1% of the time," Mauk said.
"You might get the impression from the (report) that this is a crisis. Our system is not in terrible shape at all. Some of these things just need some attention over time."
Mauk said within a month he will recommend a five-year plan for water system improvements to the City Council, along with funding recommendations. The city Water Department budget for 1986-87 is $2.75 million with a $2.3 million reserve.
Other recommendations in the Ott report include repairing seven of the city's nine wells, four booster pumps and seven reservoirs. It also advises a major overhaul of the city's main pumping station. Costs range from a $570,000 rehabilitation of Hoover Reservoir to relatively inexpensive paint and landscaping jobs.
The report also says that the city should spend $650,000 to pressurize some pipes to prevent bacterial contamination and bring the system up to state standards.
"It should be corrected, yes," said associate engineer Joe Daly of the state Department of Health Services, "but it is extremely unlikely that any contamination could actually occur."
Whittier residents' water rates are relatively low. Average Southern California households pay about $20 per month, according to an estimate by Jay Malinowski, spokesman for the MWD. Rates for residents on the Suburban Water System, which serves most of the rest of Whittier, are up to four times higher than city rates depending on the amount of water consumed, city officials said.