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Hereís To You, Ed Norton

By Jock OíConnell

This article appeared in the November 2001 issue of Comstock's Business magazine under the title "Down Under: A Look at Capital Region Sewer Infrastructure."


A late May heat wave is stewing the Central Valley in its own juices. Noon is approaching, and few people were venturing far from an air-conditioner. Not I. No, Iím standing out in the middle of Seventh Street in downtown Sacramento, improbably attired in rubber boots and rain gear while reflecting on a long-dead hydraulic engineer named Pierre Bruneseau.

Clearly, Iíve some explaining to do and it starts with a story told by Victor Hugo about his friend, Bruneseau, whose name came up during a conversation in 1805 between Napoleon Bonaparte and his Minister of the Interior.

"Sire," said the official, "yesterday I met the boldest man in your empire." It was a statement bound to cause an imperial eyebrow or two to rise. After all, Napoleon was notoriously apt to regard himself as the grandest gent in Christendom.

"Who is the man," sputtered the offended emperor, "and what has he done?"

"Itís not what he has done, sire, but what he wishes to do. He wants to visit the sewers of Paris!"

Riding into battle to face cannon and musket fire was one thing. Volunteering to go nosing around in unspeakably vile, pestilence-ridden sewers must surely have struck Napoleon as supremely audacious... or perhaps just plain mad.

That latter diagnosis weighed upon my mind two centuries later as, under bemused gaze of Gary Reents and Tom Ostby of the City of Sacramentoís Department of Utilities, I gingerly climbed down a ladder into the oldest section of an elaborate system that handles the wastewater and stormwater flows of the Sacramento region.

So what quest brought me down into the 100 year-old brick-lined sewer that runs several feet beneath Seventh Street? Why was I mucking around in an ankle-deep stream of effluent, flushed with apprehension about what I might see, smell or touch?

The answer, of course, is that I was on the trail of a story about what really distinguishes California from a Third World country ó not its electricity grid but its sewer systems. Rolling blackouts lasting upwards of two hours might inconvenience many and endanger some, but consider what would happen if drains stopped draining and toilets no longer flushed. The only thing that would prevent mobs of people from taking to the streets would be what they had already thrown into them.

Then consider this. According to a survey released last March by the American Society of Civil Engineers, our nationís sewers and wastewater treatment plants are at risk of being overwhelmed, especially in communities where older systems are being expanded to accommodate rapid population and industrial growth. Leaving aside, for a moment, the propensity of the ground in California to move abruptly and unexpectedly, how precarious is the sewer system in our area?

Thatís why Iíve come to take a first-hand look at Sacramentoís sewers. (That and the sheer exhilaration of being in a subterranean environment where the rats have evidently been scared off by the cockroaches and, where rumor has it, some thing roams the sewer under the Sacramento Zoo.)

Aging sewer pipes have long been considered "out of sight, out of mind" across the nation, making sewer repairs a low fiscal priority when measured against roads, schools, police and parks. Yet the consequences of neglect are invariably nauseating. Occasionally, they imperil public health. For example, during major storms, sewer discharges from San Francisco into the Pacific Ocean are not uncommon ó thus giving a whole new meaning to the phrase "ocean spray."

Down in Orange County, the City of Huntington Beach admitted last March to criminal culpability in federal court for allowing massive amounts of sewage to leak from aging pipes, many of which date back to 1910. Untreated sewage had been leaking into the ocean and was then washing up on nearby beaches ó creating the sort of public uproar that can be expected whenever the effluent hits the affluent. Similarly, Laguna Beach, which has been fined for repeated sewer leaks, was last year obliged to impose a sharp increase in sewer rates to fund overdue repairs to its system.

So what is the sewer picture in the Sacramento area?

On the whole, the communities of Sacramento region are in good shape when it comes to wastewater collection and treatment. But it is an expensive business and as the regionís population increases, so too will the costs of maintaining and extending the system. Older parts of the system, such as the sewer I visited, need to be replaced.

Understanding how the system works may help us better appreciate the enormous costs as well as the very considerable benefits of an efficient wastewater disposal system. So how then does the system work? What becomes of the wastewater we generate or the stormwater winter deluges produce? The answer depends on where you live or work within the county. And that, in turn, depends on how old your part of town is.

In its early years, Sacramento was not a particularly pleasant town in which to live. A 1983 study by Jackson Research Projects of Davis concluded that, as late as the 1880s, "Sacramento was one of the most unhealthy cities in the state and a general disregard of sanitary laws as well as the low, swampy condition of the land exacerbated the problem."

During the 19th century, wastewater was disposed of in the most convenient manner available. Often this meant tossing it into the street or a nearby cesspool. Human wastes were more often deposited into "privy vaults" -- which ranged from shallow holes to receptacles lined with brick or stone. The inevitable leaks contaminated the ground water. In the early 1880s, Sacramentoís mayor complained that "our subsoil is to a very great extent charged with sewage."

The first sewers constructed in Sacramento in the early 1850s were intended for drainage of rainwater rather than human waste removal. It was not until 1878 that the City of Sacramento began operation of its own sewage disposal system. By the latter decades of the 19th century, Sacramentoís sewer system consisted of a series of main sewers running north and south through what is now downtown.

As the city grew, the system was extended on a piecemeal basis, incorporating newer technologies as the system grew. Thus, the original pipes made of redwood gave way to brick-lined tunnels which in turn gave way to concrete pipes.

All of this cost money, and Sacramentans then (as now) showed considerable reluctance to pay for vital infrastructure projects. While the city constructed sewers, businesses and households were at first not required to connect. The volunteer nature of the system did little to advance the cause of public health and was ultimately abandoned. But not before competing political agendas led to one of the more distinctive features of the Sacramento sewer system, one that it shares only with San Francisco. Civil engineers and public health officials wanted to build separate systems ó one to handle drainage and storm water runoff and an entirely distinct one for waste disposal. Their more cost-conscious opponents forced a compromise so that today much of downtown Sacramento retains a single system for both storm water runoff and sewage. That is why sewer vents in downtown streets sometimes give off pungent odors. (Additional pumping capacity installed in 1999 should help alleviate this problem.)

As was the case in much of the rest of the nation, the communities of the Sacramento region -- through the period just after World War II -- discharged more wastewater into waterways than it treated. In the 1950s and 1960s, pollution of municipal sources increased dramatically, taxing and finally overwhelming existing treatment facilities.

Big changes soon followed. In 1970, the California Legislature passed the Porter-Cologne Water Quality Control Act which established comprehensive and rigorous water quality and discharge requirements. Two years later, Congress, reacting to a growing threat to the nationís health and economic well-being, enacted the watermark Clean Water Act of 1972.

The Clean Water Act not only imposed new standards for treating wastewater, it helpfully provided billions of dollars in federal funds to enable municipalities throughout the country to build treatment plants to remove harmful pollutants from the nationís wastewater. Through the 1970s and 1980s, the act was periodically amended and strengthened. Unfortunately, though, by the 1990s, the clean water grants to municipalities had dried up. So today, the financial onus is primarily on local and regional authorities.

In October 1973, the Sacramento Regional County Sanitation District (SRCSD) was formed to implement a plan to consolidate the regionís wastewater management. That task had formerly been handled by sixteen separate city, county, state and federal as well as private sewerage systems were scattered throughout the community, each with its own treatment facility. SRCSD provides wastewater treatment and large pipeline conveyance from three contributing agencies. The largest agency is County Sanitation District 1, which includes most unincorporated areas of the county, Citrus Heights, Elk Grove, and the more outlying portions of the City of Sacramento. The cities of Sacramento and Folsom also contribute to the SRCSD system.

In 1974, voters approve a bond issue to finance the countyís ten percent share of the $460 million cost of a new regional treatment plant in Elk Grove. The balance was funded by state and federal programs. In November 1982, the new regional treatment plant went online.

Today, wastewater generated by households, business, industries, and other institutions in the cities of Citrus Heights, Elk Grove and Folsom (along with the unincorporated areas of Sacramento County) flow into an intricate system of pipes and mains that carries its contents to the Sacramento Regional Wastewater Treatment Plant in Elk Grove. The same is true for the more recently developed neighborhoods in the City of Sacramento.

Wastewater first passes through household drains into six or eight-inch service lines and then into larger collector pipes beneath the streets. The water then moves from these collectors into trunk lines that ultimately empty into a network of interceptors, large diameter pipes that deliver wastewater to the Elk Grove treatment facility. There, during primary treatment, settling basins and chemicals are used to remove most solids. "Scum" -- mostly oil and grease -- is skimmed off the top. In secondary treatment, microorganisms eat organic wastes, removing even more solids. After chlorine is removed from the water, it is then pumped into the Sacramento River.

On an average rainless day, the regional system handles some 165 million gallons of wastewater. That, according to the sewer districtís engineers, is enough to cover a football field -- to a height of 40 stories.

As for the runoff from storms or from normal irrigation or lawn watering, stormwater is captured throughout most of Sacramento County by a separate system of more than 2,500 miles of piping and pump stations. Unlike the contents of sanitary sewers, these stormwater flows are not treated before being discharged into nearby rivers and creeks. The fact that itís not just rainwater that finds its way into area storm drains has raised growing concern. Indeed, readers may be shocked to learn that some area residents and businesses actually use storm drains to dispose of materials like motor oil, paints, battery acid, household and industrial chemicals, and, in at least one instance, an entire sofa.

By contrast, the downtown area and many of the older neighborhoods of East Sacramento and Land Park are served by a combined system of sewers and storm drains. The upside is that all wastewater collected in the area served by this system receives at least a primary level of treatment before being decanted into the Sacramento River.

As the Sacramento area continues to grow, the ability to provide high quality sewer service must also expand. Among other projects, there are plans to build 120 additional miles of interceptors throughout the county over the next twenty years. The price tag is not small. An estimated $1.1 billion of projects are needed to enlarge SRCSDís capacity, while another $200 million will be required to enable CSD-1 to expand the sewer system under its jurisdiction. More than $300 million in capital improvements are currently underway to increase capacity at the Regional Wastewater Treatment Plant within the next five years.

One of the more conspicuous expansion projects is the so-called Lower Northwest Interceptor, a pipeline that will extend more than 15 miles from the Natomas Pump Station adjacent to the intersection of Interstates 80 and 5 to the regional treatment plant in Elk Grove. The line will pass through the City West Sacramento, whose sewers will then be merged into the regional system.

The huge amounts needed to maintain and expand the regionís wastewater and stormwater systems will cause much civic exasperation over the next several years. So, too, will the question of who will pay the lionís share of the price tag. Thatís grist for another story. For the time being, though, Sacramentans might derive some satisfaction from an observation made during the Kings-Lakers series by Bob Shanks, the District Engineer and Department Director at the Sacramento Regional County Sanitation District.

As Shanks pointed out, what Kingsí fans flush down their toilets in Sacramento is conveyed through our sewers to our wastewater treatment plant. It is then discharged into the Sacramento River and flows into the Delta, where gallons of it are sucked up by huge pumps and dispatched via aqueduct to Southern California where it becomes the tap water Lakersí fans drink.


Email: jockoconnell@gmail.com


For other articles by Jock O'Connell, click on " Essays "