When the district renewed its sewage discharge permit in 2002, it also changed, at a cost of $1 million, the site where it discharged. Since that relocation was completed in 2004, the district has not been fined - but nobody knows if it worked or not.
That's because the staff of the Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board (a regional division of the California Water Quality Control Board) is undermanned and backlogged nearly two years in testing the sewage discharge of the agencies it oversees, says David Carlson, supervisor of the inspection division.
Although district officials complain about the stringent and changing standards, state officials say that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency limits the amount of copper in the Delta to protect fish and other wildlife.
District officials are cooperating with the state. However, if the new dump site for Discovery Bay's sewage fails to resolve the problems, district residents could be on the hook for a lot of money either in increased fines or expensive new technology, district and state officials say.
Critics, including the lone non-incumbent board candidate, have taken exception to the fines, saying it depicts the district as a polluter and scofflaw bent on avoiding a permanent solution.
Board President Bob Doran might have fueled their criticism with his remark that it was cheaper to pay the fines than to install new technology or replace all the copper plumbing in the district.
That plumbing is the major source of the copper, says district General Manager Virgil Koehne. And copper is not an issue in the district's drinking water, only in its sewage discharge.
"We required that all new homes be built with plastic plumbing and that is diluting the copper," Koehne said.
How the state measures the copper is what has tripped up the district in its efforts to control the metal. Copper's toxicity directly correlates to water softness; the softer the water, the more toxic the copper. And water softness varies with wind and water conditions, Doran said.
"It isn't that way all the time (exceeding EPA limits). So it's cheaper to pay the fine when we exceed the limit. When things are normal, we don't," Doran said.
"Right now, the fines aren't that much. When we see things getting dangerous, we'll do something else, and nobody is going to like it," Doran added.
Doran and Koehne say the district's options, if the cupric contamination continues, are:
• Make all Discovery Bay homeowners replace their copper pipes with plastic, which the district probably lacks the authority to require.
• Force the removal of all water softeners. Again, authority may be lacking.
• Ban copper in all new construction, which the district has done. As more homes without copper pipes come on line, it is hoped the contamination will be further diluted.
• Expand and upgrade the sewage treatment program, which might be coming.
Continuing to pay the minimum fine won't work very long, Carlson warned.
The state can't tell the district how to fix its problem, but it can choose to fine the district up to tens of millions of dollars and assess it for the money it saved by not correcting it, he said.
That's not likely to happen, both sides say.
The district must apply for a new five-year discharge permit in 2007 and it expects new standards for metals, solvents and other things such as shampoos and deodorants by then, Koehne said.
"As we grow with new development, probably the next big development will put us over the threshold (exceeding pollution standards) and will force us to expand our wastewater treatment plant. We'll probably have to put something in it to reduce the copper even more to get us under the radar. We'll probably say to the developer: your new homes will contribute (to the pollution)," he said.
In that case, the developer or developers, along with district residents, will be asked to contribute to the expansion of the plant, Koehne said.