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It may cost a lot more to flush
Costly federal regulations in works for wastewater treatment
Tougher federal discharge standards for the San Joaquin River in the works may mean Manteca’s $50 million plant upgrade, retrofit, and expansion to meet new state standards may not do the job meaning another costly sewer project. - photo by HIME ROMERO
Non-native minnows so small that you can literally see through them almost sent Manteca’s monthly wastewater treatment bills up to $100 per household.

State regulators concerned that young minnows in lab tests were dying at too high of a rate forced Manteca to remove even more levels of ammonia from treated wastewater. At one point the process to accomplish that would have sent monthly sewer bills for households toward the $100 mark each month.  Eventually a less expensive process was found that met tougher state standards reducing the need for massive rate increases and led to the current $50 million treatment plant retrofit, upgrade and expansion project.

Now something more daunting than a minnow is threatening to send Manteca’s sewer bills sky high – federal environmental bureaucrats.

Manteca City Council members participating in the One Voice lobbying effort in Washington, D.C. where told by Congressman Dennis Cardoza, D-Merced, on Sunday that the federal government is getting ready to step in and impose tougher new standards that would require cities such as Manteca that discharge treated wastewater into the San Joaquin River to adhere to even higher standards for the removal of more ammonia, nitrates, salts, and even the temperature of the water.

The potential slapping of even tougher federal discharge standards while Manteca is working to meet tougher state standards came up Tuesday during a discussion on the City Council’s decision to invest $89,000 from non-general fund accounts – sewer, water, and the redevelopment agency – to hire the Washington, D.C., lobbying firm of Van Scoyc Associates to go after federal stimulus money for construction projects as well as represents city’s interest in pending federal regulations.

Councilman John Harris noted if the lobbying firm can help the federal regulations be more reasonable “that alone would be worth it.”

Manteca isn’t the only city that will be impacted significantly if the federal government ups the ante by raising the bar even higher for nitrate, ammonia, and salt removal. Any city that discharges into the San Joaquin River watershed is on the hook. However, since Manteca is the last point before the San Joaquin River reaches the Delta it discharges into water thoroughly weakened in terms of quality issues. Most of the fresh water from the San Joaquin River is diverted at Friant Dam although rivers such as the Stanislaus and Merced flow into it farther downstream.

Tests the city hired experts to conduct almost a decade ago showed the water the city discharges into the river is actually cleaner than what is in it. Also, the ammonia levels dissipated within yards from the outflow but the state emphasized its standards call for the water to have lower levels of ammonia at the point it is discharged.

“We are paying for the sins of those who came before us,” City Manager Steve Pinkerton said.

Mayor favors going to land disposal to avoid higher costs
Although he didn’t bring it up, the news re-enforced Manteca Mayor Willie Weatherford’s longstanding efforts to push the city toward land disposal of all treated wastewater.

Weatherford has repeatedly warned ever increasing water quality standards one day would make it cost prohibitive to discharge treated water back into the San Joaquin River.

He has advocated the use of recycled water for municipal landscaping as well as farming applications where appropriate as treated wastewater is rich with nitrates and ammonia that are ideal for crops given those are among the key elements in fertilizer.

Mayor Weatherford has long championed creating a 200-acre “wetlands” in southwest Manteca on land that is in the floodplain. His vision is to plant heavy water users such as willows in the area and turn it into a nature preserve using water from the treatment plant transported via purple pipe.

One source of revenue to proceed with the project is the agricultural and wetlands preservation and restoration fee charges on new development as required by state law. The funds can either go to city projects that accomplish that goal or elsewhere in the valley.

The city was issued a cease and desist order on April 30, 1999. Part of the cost of the city’s project to meet the state ammonia standard was met with $8 million in state bond money secured by former State Sen. Mike Machado. That alone has been able to save every household in Manteca over $1,000 in construction and finance costs for the treatment plant project.

A decision by the California Regional Water Quality Control Board to change the quality level of treated water that’s returned to the San Joaquin River is tested put Manteca out-of-compliance after years of meeting and exceeding state standards.

Initially, the city met all requirements from the more stringent standards issued in June 1997 except the bioassay test that measures the impact on river fish.

The state allowed the city to use juvenile rainbow trout in the test that were between 15 and 30 days old. Monthly tests showed the city achieved compliance using the trout.

Then in June 1997, the state demanded the city switch to the non-native minnow larvals. The end result was a higher kill rate in the laboratory.