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City flushing out sewage challenges

Problems go back to '79 construction of plant
By: Michael Althouse, Colfax Record Staff Writer
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Colfax's wastewater treatment plant, completed in 1979, was never designed to discharge treated sewage into a nearby stream. Yet, it has done just that to varying degrees (depending on which governmental agency is asked) since its completion more than 25 years ago at 23550 Grand View Way. In 1972, the Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board issued a permit to the city of Colfax that required surface water discharge to cease upon the completion of a "land disposal" plant in 1974. A land disposal plant treats all of its wastewater on-site. The Colfax plant was originally designed to sprinkle the treated wastewater onto the hillsides of the plant site, allowing runoff to be caught by the plant. After an extension to 1976 and an enforcement order from the Water Quality Control Board with a scheduled completion date in 1979, the plant finally went online. Problems have been constant at the treatment plant Unfortunately, it was only the beginning of a series of problems that continues to this day, say city officials, Water Quality Control Board officials and at least one directly affected resident. According to documents supplied by the Water Quality Control Board, from the very start, the land disposal treatment plant seeped wastewater from the storage reservoir into a stream flowing through Smuthers Ravine and ultimately into the American River. Sewage treatment plants are responsible for removing solids and disinfecting the remaining wastewater, said Assistant Executive Officer Kenneth D. Landau of the Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board. In Colfax, this is done in ponds where air is pumped through the wastewater to encourage the decomposition of the waste material. During this process, 90 to 95 percent of the disease-causing pathogens are killed. In a land disposal system, the wastewater is then sprayed out in the open where the remaining pathogens die from being out in the sunlight and exposure. In Colfax, this means that the wastewater is sprayed onto the hillside above the treatment plant. Run-off from the wastewater and rain can then be caught by the plant's storage reservoir before it can enter the stream. However, the capacity of the plant's storage reservoir was insufficient from the beginning to catch all the run-off during heavy rains and the dam seeped at its base regardless of run-off, according to state and local officials. In 1979, the city proposed an additional containment and seepage pumping system but did not make the improvements due to an inability to obtain the $500,000 it would cost, according to Water Quality Control Board documents. Although none of the mountain streams in the Sierra are considered safe to drink because of animal waste and other natural pathogens, Landau said, there are two areas of contamination the board examines. The first is whether the water is unsafe for human contact. This would be the case if the wastewater was treated but not disinfected. Water Quality Control Board documents indicate that Colfax's plant has violated minimum and median state standards on numerous occasions between April 1995 and December 2000, according to the city's own testing. Chlorine is used to kill off the remaining bacteria to disinfect the wastewater before release. However, excess chlorine and other toxic chemicals used in treatment must be removed before the water is released. According to Landau, excessive levels of chlorine and other chemicals and heavy metals such as ammonia and mercury are a hazard to aquatic life, the other type of contamination examined. Colfax has also exceeded maximum chlorine levels, according to the Regional Water Quality Control Board and the Department of Fish and Game in a sample taken Jan. 14, 2003. According to Water Quality Control Board documents, which are available at the Record office, a Department of Fish and Game March 2003 memo concluded, "the city's sampling for chlorine residual was inadequate or performed incorrectly." This conclusion was based on the department's own data and the Water Quality Control Board's data that indicated high levels of chlorine when the city's data did not. "The water is reasonably safe when [the plant is] working properly. But there have been a number of failures," Landau said. One area family is directly affected by the treatment plant Allen Edwards, owner of approximately one mile of Smuthers Ravine Creek and the surrounding acreage said he doesn't trust the water or the city. "We can never depend on the water being safe. We can't trust it," Edwards said. The land, which has been in the Edwards' family for 60 years, is used as a tree farm and for growing produce. In 1997, they decided to live on their land after being assured by the city that the water was safe, Edwards said. They built their home not too far from the creek. However, according to the Water Quality Control Board, the city was issued a notice of violation in 1996 for "(1) discharge of treated but undisinfected wastewater due to lack of storage capacity (2) failure to maintain sprinkler system, and (3) violation of the influent flow limit." In 1997, as reported by the Water Quality Control Board, the city addressed these issues but was not able to adequately solve the capacity shortage during wet weather. In December 2000, the Regional Water Quality Control Board's inspection of the plant resulted in another notice of violation in February 2001. In March 2001, Bob Perrault was hired as Colfax city manager. "I think the city has made tremendous progress," Perrault said last week. He resigned last spring to take a city manager job at Grover Beach. Water Quality Control Board documents indicate that, in August 2003, the city was fined $351,000 by the board for discharge violations between 1995 and 2000. The city was given the option of spending the fine amount on getting the plant into compliance. In December 2003, the city exercised the option to apply the fine towards compliance with conditions set up by the Water Quality Control Board that dictates complete compliance by the original June 14, 2006 date. Since the penalty, the city has been more "responsive," Landau said. However, as of June 15 this year, the city has been out of compliance because the new plant has not yet been built. Contaminated releases continue to be a problem and the city could be fined at any time, Landau said. Although Edwards said he could exercise his option to sue, he said, "Suing hurts everyone. We're members of this community too." Michael Althouse can be reached at mikealthouse@earthlink.net.
Editor's Note: This is the first of a four-part series examining wastewater treatment in Colfax. Today's story is a history of the treatment plant. Part Two will examine the financial state of the sewer system and factors that drive the costs. Part Three looks at the future. And finally, Part Four will report on the outcome, if any, from the Aug. 8 public hearing regarding rate increases.