Caltrans releases optimistic, costly five-year plan to find thousands of lost holes
Caltrans finally provided a cost estimate for its plan to find and possibly seal thousands of improperly drilled holes throughout the state, indicating the program could be completed in a few years. But the disclosure left many questions unanswered.
Two years ago, Caltrans admitted it defied state and local laws protecting against groundwater contamination for nearly a quarter century and has been scrambling since to “resolve” approximately 20,000 boreholes statewide. While most holes need to be found, some are covered, others need to be sealed, while others are being resolved through an agreement with the local agency, like counties.
Caltrans estimates the “borehole mitigation” effort could cost between $17 million and $37.2 million over the next five years, in addition to the $5.2 million that’s been spent already.
The plan also predicts the program could be completed by as early as 2019. But staff is only finding a small percentage of the holes at the moment, no more than 15 percent of active and planned jobs. The find rate would likely decrease as Caltrans begins searching for older holes.
Staff cannot or will not explain in detail how it arrived at it’s optimistic figures.
“It’s an estimate,” said spokesman Mark Dinger.
Caltrans reportedly told the Legislature that to arrive at the numbers, staff “looked at the data and trends from our recent efforts” to estimate the next fiscal year, adding that the “infancy (and lack of history)” of the plan makes estimates beyond the upcoming fiscal year “very speculative.”
With such a low find rate, little history and no data to base its findings on, how is Caltrans predicting the effort could be completed in the next few years?
“Again, it’s an estimate,” said Dinger.
Caltrans has repeatedly said not all holes will need to be redrilled and sealed, as many are covered by roads and others were not drilled through the water table, but staff has not provided an estimate of how many holes need to be found.
Caltrans previously told CalWatchdog it costs between $25,000 and $60,000 to “resolve” one borehole. At a 15 percent find rate — a very generous estimate — the cost would be between $75 million and $180 million.
Dinger said Caltrans has been working with local agencies to reach resolutions “that do not require re-drilling and resealing past boreholes,” but did not provide an estimate of how many that would be.
To date, Caltrans reports it has spent at least $5.2 million to “resolve” between 7 percent and 15 percent, depending on the phase of the three-phase plan. Since 1990, Caltrans lost 523 holes in Sacramento County (Phase 1) and at least 5,737 holes statewide for “active and planned projects” (Phase 2).
Phase 3 will be the remaining 14,000 or so holes from completed projects between 1990 and 2014. That total number is just an estimate.
Sacramento County, which helped bring the issue to light, is threatening to fine Caltrans as much as $5.23 million per day for not obtaining permits, licenses and inspections — against state and local law — for the hundreds of wells drilled from January 1990 to May 2014. However, the compliance date has passed without Sacramento County announcing its next move.
The state’s Water Code, and subsequent state and local laws, regulates drilling practices in or near groundwater to protect against contamination. Local agencies chased Caltrans employees around for years trying to get them to comply.
In June 2014, Caltrans Director Malcolm Dougherty sent a memo to Brian Kelly, the secretary of the California State Transportation Agency, stating that Caltrans now agreed with Sacramento County and other local agencies about following local procedures.
Dougherty admitted to Kelly that the lack of documentation, combined with an “ill-defined business process means Caltrans cannot represent that we have adequately protected groundwater during our drilling operations as required” by state law.
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