Eckert’s — the bell pepper processing facility on Moffat Boulevard that provides upwards of 350 jobs a year and has made it possible for generations of working class Manteca residents to feed their families, buy homes and send their children to college — may no longer have a future in Manteca.
“Maybe it’s time (for Eckert’s) to move,” Manteca Mayor Ben Cantu said Tuesday during a staff presentation to the City Council on how to dispose of Eckert’s water used to wash bell peppers now that the land the city has been disposing of it on is being developed including 30 acres the city sold to Great Wolf Lodge for the building of a 500-room hotel and indoor water park resort.
By that the mayor means move out of Manteca.
Cantu, who noted his wife Mary worked at Eckert’s as a teen, made his comment after staff indicated the options that would make it possible to operate long-term in Manteca likely would likely cost the firm millions of dollars. One would be the installing a pipeline several miles long to reach city-owned property on Hays Road that the city had originally acquired for land disposal of treated water as land is developed next to the treatment plant. That option would also require investing in some form of treatment facility at the site.
The other is for the firm to pay substantial connection fees to once again send their water that is heavily laden with nitrates from washing peppers — particularly red ones — prior to being processed. Eckert’s is the world’s largest source of processed peppers used by pizza chains. Sending the water through the plant would consume capacity that the city would rather be used to accommodate growth in housing and other sectors. Expensive changes would also have to be made to the plant.
The city working with experts hired by Eckert’s have come up with a short-term plan to dispose of the agricultural water by blending it with less treated wastewater before applying it to less land. That option will eventually disappear as the city develops other land at the wastewater treatment plant north of the Great Wolf site and west of Big League Dreams as a family entertainment zone.
The use of less treated wastewater is expected to create odor problems that don’t currently exist. Councilman Jose Nuño said that is a concern of his after he was approached about the issue by constituents. Creating an odor problem in the summer and fall at the treatment plant would be problematic for the city as well given Great Wolf and Big League Dreams are the linchpin of the city’s plans to bring almost a million annual visitors to Manteca are literally eight downwind from where the water is being applied to the land to grow corn that is used as silage for cows.
Some at city hall have expressed the belief that Eckert’s should have seen this coming. Back in 2000, though, no one including city officials believed land attached to the municipal wastewater treatment plant would ever be used for anything other than land disposal of treated wastewater and for expansion of the plant.
After an upgrade at the plant with the latest treatment technology, the city was in a position to consider developing the land they originally acquired for the treatment plant believing it had high commercial value by being along the 120 Bypass corridor. Thirty acres of the land is where Great Wolf is making the biggest private sector investment in Manteca history to the tune of $180 million.
The state indirectly threatened to pull the plug on Eckert’s 19 years by ordering the city to bring its treatment process back into compliance after it was knocked out of balance due to the Eckert’s water.
Developers offered a solution that allowed Eckert’s to keep going. The housing boom was underway and sewer capacity was running out at the treatment plant. So developers — working in conjunction with city staff — hatched a plan to have the capacity used by Eckert’s shifted to residential uses in exchange for developers fronting the $1.2 million to build the line plus give another $2.3 million in bonus bucks – development agreement fees paid in exchange for sewer allocation certainty. The water, basically harmless for land disposal, would no longer flow into the treatment plant.
Those bonus bucks made it possible to complete the Union Road fire station, build the skate park, and install traffic signals at two Tidewater crossings – one on Louise Avenue and the other on Northgate Drive.
The purple pipe project took Eckert’s water to land at the treatment plans and freed up plant capacity to accommodate an additional 1,853 single family homes.
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