SOUTH GATE — The city of South Gate, already planning a $5-million treatment plant for five polluted wells that once provided half its water, has removed a sixth well from service because of chemical contamination.
The well was shut Dec. 19 after tests found an industrial solvent in the water at a level higher than recommended by the state. Although the chemical is suspected of causing cancer in humans, state health officials said the exposure had been so brief that it posed very little risk to residents.
City officials said the well closure intensifies South Gate's water pollution problem, already among the most serious in the Southeast area.
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Since discovery of its first contaminated well three years ago, South Gate has lost 55% of its well-water supply, city officials said. Trace levels of industrial solvents have also been found in four of the six city wells still in operation, and the level of pollution is increasing in three of them, they said.
City officials say they now think that all 12 city wells--and two more scheduled to begin pumping early this year--may be contaminated beyond use within a few years. The source of the pollution has not been found.
"I have the gut feeling that it's just a matter of time," said Rollie D. Berry, director of public works, the department that oversees water distribution. "We'd be a little foolish not to plan for that eventuality."
Berry said he will recommend that the City Council at its Jan. 9 meeting approve the sale of $25 million in city-backed certificates of participation. They would pay for a $5-million treatment-and-storage plant and a general upgrade of the city's 60-year-old water system.
The sale of the certificates, a financing tool much like bonds, would gradually increase the typical monthly water bill of a South Gate resident from $9.37 today to $27 by the year 2000, Berry said. However, if no construction projects are approved, the typical residential bill would still increase to $19.70 over the next 11 years, even if no more wells are closed, he said.
A mid-1988 South Gate survey of 17 Southeast cities showed that the city's typical residential water fee of $8.12 was the lowest. The highest was $19.05 for Suburban Water Co. in Whittier, which also has a water contamination problem.
At its Dec. 12 meeting, the South Gate council raised the residential rate 15%, to $9.37 per home. The city has about 15,000 residential, business and industrial customers.
'They Bit the Bullet' "I think that (increase) was recognition by the council that . . . rates will have to increase to finance the capital improvements," Berry said. "They bit the bullet. It's a start."
Of the $25 million Berry has proposed for water projects, $20 million would pay for actual construction. About $5 million would cover contingencies, issuance of the certificates and some interest payments on them, he said.
In addition to the planned $5-million treatment-and storage-facility at Recreation Park, about $3 million would be needed for smaller treatment plants elsewhere. A $5.7-million well and pumping station would be built on the city's west side. Another $5 million would pay for replacement of 17 miles of rusting pipes that city studies say are too small to carry an adequate water supply, and $2 million would pay for relining miles of other pipes.
The top priority, according to Berry and city water agency officials, is construction of the treatment plants. Without them, South Gate must continue to purchase imported water at twice the price of well water, they said. About 15% of the city's annual water supply--and up to 40% of its supply during peak summer months--comes from the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, which imports it through aqueducts from Northern California and the Colorado River, officials said.
Dependence on imported water makes South Gate vulnerable during times of drought when supplies drop sharply, said Jim Glancy, city water superintendent. The cost of imported water has also risen dramatically in recent years, he noted. It has more than doubled since 1980.
According to Glancy, South Gate can clean its water with a large plant at Recreation Park, where four closed wells are located, and with mini-plants at closed wells elsewhere for less than it would cost to buy imported water.
The cost of imported water is $232 an acre-foot, compared to about $120 an acre-foot for well water, Glancy said. Treatment would cost about $80 an acre-foot, he said. Even that could be reduced if the city allows trace amounts to remain in the water, rather than cleaning it so no chemicals are detectable.
Recent tests with a portable purifier showed that "the more (pollution) you get out, the harder you're going to have to work, and the higher the operating costs," Glancy said.