Modesto Bee Investigator: Getting to the root of two problems (Updated)

03/30/2014 4:38 PM

03/31/2014 4:00 PM

UPDATE: The stinky problem is fixed. Laura Anhalt, Modesto's wastewater treatment plant manager, called Monday morning to report that her crew had gone out to inspect the report of the "rotten eggs" smell at Hatch Road and Ustick in south Modesto.

Turns out the manhole cover wasn't just leaking the odor of sulfur, which is common to the sewer system throughout Modesto, she said. It was missing!

The crew replaced it, which should help with the stinky smell, she said.

Sue Nowicki


We’re going to get to the root of a couple of problems this week.

The first one is literally roots, as in roots of a city-planted tree growing above round instead of going deep. The second problem stinks. I mean, it really stinks.

Let’s start with Karen McCabe of Modesto. Said she, “This is my front yard with the tree installed by the city. What route would you advise that I use to get this corrected before someone trips over these ‘routes’?”

Gotta love a gal with a sense of humor and a good pun.

She provided a photo of the tree. The roots were exposed and, thus, she said, a liability and safety issue.

I put her question to Steve Lumpkin, acting director of the city’s Parks, Recreation and Neighborhoods Department, who has been very helpful on other questions.

“If she will contact Modesto’s Community Forestry, they will come out and look at the tree and see what can be done,” Lumpkin said. “This could be anything from root cutting (to) all the way to removal of the tree.”

He suggested that Karen call Kenny Thornsberry of the city’s forestry department at (209) 342-2255. We’ll follow up with her later to see how this problem was resolved. Meanwhile, if you have a similar problem, you know the person to call.

The second question is from Gina Rodriguez of Modesto. Said she: “I’ve lived in Modesto for three years now and noticed while driving down Hatch Road toward Crows Landing Road that right around Ustick (Road) there is a foul odor – like rotten eggs! Any idea where that comes from? It’s always there and doesn’t subside; it just flat out stinks all the time!”

I first called Toby Wells, Ceres’ acting city manager, to see if he knew anything about it. The intersection is in south Modesto, not Ceres, but Wells has a good handle on his city and the surrounding area. He’s been helpful in the past, although I can’t convince Wells, also the city’s engineer, to make a minor change to the stoplight at Morgan Road and Hatch Road so that southbound traffic doesn’t have to be bunched up for three to five signal changes. But back to the stinky question.

Wells said he doesn’t know why there’s an odor there, but suspected because the area is “just downwind of the city of Modesto’s treatment plant (on the north side of the river next to Dryden Golf Course), that is the most likely source of the sulfur or rotten egg smell.”

He suggested I contact Modesto’s wastewater treatment department for more information.

I spoke with Laura Anhalt, the wastewater treatment plant manager. I have to say, I was very impressed with her. Modesto has lost a number of department heads and officials over the past several years, but I hope the city hangs on to Anhalt and Jocelyn Reed, Modesto’s solid waste program manager. Those two gals, both in male-dominated jobs, really know their stuff.

Anhalt said she lived near the intersection in question when she first moved to Modesto, and another member of her department lives there now.

“Occasionally, we would get an odor,” she said, but added, “I’m not convinced it is the sewer lines. We’ll happily go check it out. I understand that the drain goes underneath the river, and it kind of gets sediment in it. But we haven’t had any other complaints.”

If they open the manhole cover at that intersection and get a whiff of that sulfur smell, they’ll know something is probably wrong with either “a digester or a clarifier. The clarifier separates the solids. Sometimes when they’re taking those out of service, there will be an odor. A digester is basically like your stomach. It sounds weird, but it’s almost a body function.” If that’s not working properly, it can also cause the bad smell.

There are other causes for the odor, she said. If there’s too much sediment in the system, it can cause a buildup of sulfur. If the river is running low, as it has been lately, it can also cause the smell. Or it could be a combination of the river and the sewer system.

Here’s something you may not know: The sulfur smell is in the sewer system 24/7 throughout Modesto, Anhalt said. So it can escape through a manhole cover at any time.

“It could be stronger on one day than another day,” she said. “Usually, the smell is worse in the summer when the heat rises. It’s heavier than air, so it hangs low to the ground in the wintertime.”

She said it’s a common scent “when you drive through Tracy where the Spreckels Sugar plant used to be.” She’s developed a nose for it. “After being in the business for 20 years, I can smell a wastewater treatment plant.”

The smell doesn’t necessarily mean something’s wrong. “But if you smell (sulfur) in quantity, it’s not OK,” Anhalt said. People “should definitely call, because it has the potential to be a problem. There could be a blockage, or a generator could be down. The scrubbers could be out of service.”

And it could lead to an overflow or sewage spill.

“We want to take care of (overflows) right away,” she said. “We’ve reduced overflows by 50 percent in the last few years. It really makes a difference to the community when there’s not an overflow.”

Smells nicer, too.

So, if you’re in the city of Modesto and smell a consistent, distinctive “rotten egg” odor, give the wastewater treatment plant a call at (209) 577-6200. A city crew will check things out, and you might just prevent a bigger problem.

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