Sweetwater Authority eyes sand mining, material dredging opportunities

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The Sweetwater Authority in February transferred water from the Loveland Reservoir to the Sweetwater Reservoir, where an estimated $6 million worth of water was collected to deliver to customers. (Courtesy of Sweetwater Authority )

Posted September 23, 2019

South Bay district exploring revenue sources and increasing capacity of reservoirs

CHULA VISTA  — The board of the Sweetwater Authority is interested in sand mining and material dredging opportunities in and around the South Bay water agency’s two reservoirs.

The agency, which serves National City, Bonita and parts of Chula Vista, plans to solicit interest from sand mining companies to explore the concept — specifically, whether there are opportunities to leverage the Sweetwater and Loveland reservoirs by extracting materials to not only create a revenue stream but also increase the capacity of the reservoirs.

“Based on exploding costs of water, there’s an increasing value for this” idea to be looked at, said Steve Castaneda, chair of the governing board.

The seven-member board directed staff last month to prioritize soliciting interest from sand mining companies to examine the idea.

The hope is that companies will determine the quality and value of any materials, the costs of mining and/or dredging and any potential impacts to water quality, among other factors to consider, General Manager Tish Berge said, adding that in the end the companies will likely put together proposals for the board to consider.

The agency could end up entering into a contract with a company for one-time or ongoing mining and/or dredging, Berge said.

But for now, she said, it’s all “exploratory work.”

“We think we have an asset that might have value, but we don’t know until we study it,” she said.

Castaneda is hopeful. He said the market seems to indicate that the value of materials such as sand and soil has gone up.

He said he views sand mining and material dredging as a potential opportunity to use a business approach to expand the capacity of the reservoirs. Other ways to expand the reservoirs — such as projects to raise the height of the dams — would be costly, he said.

“Hopefully, we would not only save ratepayers a little money, but potentially make a little money,” he said.

It wouldn’t be the first time the agency creates a revenue stream. Berge pointed to water towers that the agency leases to cell phone companies as one way the agency pulls in revenue to offset costs for ratepayers.

While the idea has the potential to increase the capacity of the reservoirs, a greater supply of water (think rain) in the future is not guaranteed. Should the idea lead to a greater water supply, however, it would likely help offset costs to purchase water from other agencies.

While the board has decided to explore the idea, some board members have expressed some early concerns. During a meeting last month, board member Jose Preciado said he wants to ensure the agency doesn’t end up losing water or other resources, while board member Jerry Cano expressed concerns about “what might be found” in the excavation process.

“My concern is be careful what you wish for,” he said.

The idea was pushed forward by board member Hector Martinez, a former employee, as part of the board’s strategic planning in recent months.

“I think it’s a good thing for our community,” he said during a meeting last month.

At the board’s request, staff returned last week with a timeline with next steps, which include sending letters of interest to companies and hosting site visits — to allow the companies to meet with staff and ask questions — in November. The goal is to consider proposals from companies early next year.

The water agency asked an outside firm to explore sand mining and material dredging in 2010 as it planned to restore sections of a preserve around Sweetwater Reservoir that were burned by the 2017 Harris fire. The 2010 study concluded that the material that was tested was prime for habitat restoration purposes but not marketable sand for concrete and that the market for top soil was weak. The study recommended that the agency revisit the market and idea in two to three years.

Source: sandiegouniontribune.com