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City of St. Helena

The Napa County Grand Jury wants St. Helena and other municipalities to pay more attention to complaints about water quality.

A grand jury report issued June 14 concluded that water from all of Napa County’s municipalities is safe to drink and well within state and federal quality standards. But safety notwithstanding, the Grand Jury recommended that cities place a higher priority on customer complaints about taste, odor and color.

St. Helena’s Louis Stralla Water Treatment Plant was not among the facilities the Grand Jury toured, but members did interview water and public works officials in each jurisdiction, including St. Helena.

According to the report, the city received an average of 30-40 complaints per year in 2017 and 2018, mostly involving taste and odor. The Public Works Department issued press releases in 2017 and 2018 acknowledging the complaints and describing how the city was addressing them.

The grand jury noted that although Public Works staff followed up personally on “many, if not most” of the complaints, a summary of complaints is not supplied to senior Public Works staff or city management or included in the annual water quality report provided to customers.

The grand jury recommended cities advise citizens of known and anticipated taste-and-odor and color issues. It recommended cities publish taste-and-odor and color quality measures and results as part of their annual reports.

Local jurisdictions should evaluate water treatment upgrades to turn out more aesthetically pleasing water, the grand jury recommended. But it also acknowledged the money challenge.

“While more might be done to make the water consistently taste better, such improvements come at significant cost,” the report said. “County residents, especially upvalley, already pay high rates for safe drinking water and wastewater.”

A household in Calistoga or St. Helena might pay more than double the cost for water and wastewater as a household in the city of Napa, American Canyon or Yountville, or $1,000 to $1,500 more annually, the report said.

Each city in the county manages its own water supply and charges rates to a relatively small population base. That’s a legacy of a rural history of city-by-city self-funding and self-management, the report said.

Potential solutions the grand jury wants explored include sharing water treatment resources among jurisdictions and perhaps even creating a countywide water provider. The Local Agency Formation Commission of Napa County plans to do such a study that could result in recommendations by February.

The St. Helena City Council has 90 days to respond to the report.

Napa Valley Register reporter Barry Eberling contributed to this article.

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