Last week I introduced the Leland Report that was presented to city council on Dec. 7. The purpose of the report was to help guide the city’s land use policy to support housing affordability and economic vitality. One of the major themes introduced by the report was the city’s utilities, water and wastewater infrastructure.
Leland stressed the increase in demand for housing far outpaces the supply. If Sandpoint is to meet the future demand for housing and thereby halt further escalation of housing prices, it needs to provide the infrastructure to support that growth.
Water and wastewater infrastructure is expensive to build and maintain. Extending city services is only cost effective when there is sufficient density to pay for it. Therefore, future extension of services will favor urbanized development like multifamily, attached housing and mixed use commercial rather than the less dense single-family developments. This development approach will provide more affordable housing types benefitting lower income residents and those that employ them.
There are serious challenges to Sandpoint’s utilities infrastructure. Our wastewater treatment plant is a relic of the Farragut Base built in the 1940s. At 80 years old, it is famously beyond its useful life which is why the city in the process of replacing it. In fact, just last night city council approved a request to submit a letter of intent to the Idaho DEQ to request funding for a new plant. The conveyance system of pipes and pumps also requires significant upgrades.
Over the last 15 years, the city has spent over $6 million rehabilitating sewer lines throughout the city to ease pressure on the plant and protect water quality in the river. In addition, 25% of the sewer laterals have been replaced across the city over that time period with that cost mostly borne by homeowners. These critical improvements to the system work together to reduce the inflow and infiltration of non-wastewater into the system that goes a long way toward improving the function and life of our plant. Yet, more investments need to be made to meet future demand.
The water system also has a critical role in supporting growth throughout the region. Sandpoint has plenty of capacity with the Lake Treatment Plant (built in 2012), which currently serves about half of our potable water, and could double its capacity. However, there are real challenges to delivering that water everywhere it is needed. This is due to physical constraints like elevation, distance and pressure as services are extended. It is also due to political challenges like service agreements and jurisdictional boundaries.
Leland recommends Sandpoint invest in infrastructure improvements to meet future growth demands. This will necessitate the implementation of intergovernmental agreements to support utility expansion across jurisdictions. This includes updating the city’s utility service policy that considers cost benefit analysis as well as fair and sustainable funding and collection strategies for each city.
Growth will happen where there is water service. If Sandpoint is to grow responsibly, water and wastewater service need to go hand in hand. If we do otherwise, we encourage sprawl, longer commutes, lower levels of service and we end up proliferating septic systems that can threaten the quality of our water. DEQ has already seen signs of this consequence in the Sagle Aquifer.
If Sandpoint is to achieve affordability for all of its residents, it will necessarily be in part through dense development and efficient use of resources. Careful planning and improvement of utility infrastructure is a critical component of affordability, environmental health and quality of life.
Sandpoint is committed to rebuilding the wastewater treatment plant to serve the needs of future growth in and around the city. It is also committed to provide the infrastructure in water and wastewater systems necessary to support continued growth in our region. At the same time, the city is working with local jurisdictions to ensure that the appropriate agreements are in place to support our critical infrastructure in a manner that is efficient, fair and equitable to taxpayers and rate payers for years to come.
Shelby Rognstad is the mayor of Sandpoint. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.