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Manteca cleans up city ‘sand pit’ at Atherton & South Main
Blown sand fills a gutter at the intersection of Atherton Drive and South Main Street. - photo by DENNIS WYATT

Manteca’s dust bowl — the intersection of Atherton Drive and South Main Street — is getting cleaned up Friday.

But how long it stays sand free is up to Mother Nature.

During a discussion at Tuesday’s Manteca City Council meeting concerning whether to allow developers to purchase treated water by hooking up to fire hydrants for dust control instead of hauling recycled water from the wastewater treatment plant, Councilwoman Debby Moorhead asked what the city was doing about Atherton Drive at South Main.

Moorhead said when the winds pick up “it’s like driving through a dust storm in Saudi Arabia.”

Public Works Director Mark Houghton said the city is sending out street sweepers Friday to clear gutters and storm drains of the sand. The bill will be sent to the property owner on the northwest corner who grows strawberries on part of the land.

The property owner has tried to mitigate the situation by putting up a fence.

Not only is blowing sand a safety issue for drivers by reducing visibility, but it can reduce the capacity of the storm system if significant amounts go down drains and essentially creates mud in the pipe during storm run-off.

In reality, there may be little the city can do if land is being farmed using “standard” farming practices given Manteca is a right to farm city and has been so for decades. That means accepted use of chemicals for pest control, fertilizer application, smells, dust from harvesting to plowing, and other farm practices are allowed.

Mayor Steve DeDrum — a staunch defender of the right to farm as is the rest of the council — noted there is a difference between farming land and vacant land.

A portion of the blown sand comes from segments of the property nearest the intersection that is rarely farmed.

Staff said the issue with blowing sand increased a bit after a nearby almond orchard was removed earlier this year.

City Attorney John Brinton noted that during the escrow process the fact Manteca is a right to farm city is clearly pointed out to buyers of new and existing homes. In most cases, the lettering of the right to farm document is in 24 point type making it stick out significantly from other disclosures that home buyers sign.

Brinton ventured a guess that “probably 75 percent” don’t remember the disclosure that have to sign in order to get a home in and out of escrow. Councilman Mike Morowit interjected “it’s probably more like 90 percent.”

 In lifting the requirement that non-potable water be used for dust control at construction sites, the council was responding to a request from the Building Industry Association of the Delta.

During the drought the city made recycled water available at no charge from the wastewater treatment plant via a purple hydrant after the city banned the use of potable water obtained from fire hydrants for that purpose.

The water was provided free to offset the cost incurred by trucking the water a significant distance as opposed to securing water through a metered connection at a nearby fire hydrant and paying for what is essentially drinking water.

Some developers who bought former farmland use the old farm wells for dust control.

DeBrum, concerned about how nimble the city could be when the next drought situation popped up, was assured by city staff ordinance language allows for the immediate suspension of the use of potable city water when the council declares a drought emergency.

Houghton also said the city has established higher rates for water from fire hydrants and has significantly upped the fine for those caught taking water without using a meter.

In the late 19th century, the Manteca area was called “The Sandy Plains” due to how easily wind would blow sandy loam soil. Once surface irrigation was in place and permanent crops such as orchards and vineyards were planted, much of the blowing sand problem disappeared.

That said as late as 1998 the stretch along the southern side of the 120 Bypass from Airport Way to Main Street would see sand as well as tumbleweeds blow onto the freeway. Development of subdivisions south of the 120 Bypass significantly reduced such issues. Building has also greatly reduced the thickness of Tule fog that emanates from wet loose sandy soil as air temperature heat ups. The number of mid-morning zero visibility fog days on the 120 Bypass and Highway 99 has dropped drastically since the 1990s.

To contact Dennis Wyatt, email