A state agency is proposing Modesto pay a $165,000 penalty for releasing roughly 755 million gallons of partially treated waste water into the San Joaquin River in March. The city released the waste water because its sewer system had been overwhelmed by storms and rising river water.
Modesto officials are recommending the City Council on Tuesday approve paying the penalty. The Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board issued the city in April a notice of violation for releasing the waste water in violation of its discharge permit. Modesto could contest the proposed penalty and ask for a hearing. But a city report says that would result in more legal costs and could bring a bigger penalty.
The proposed penalty comes after the water board conducted an investigation, and the fine is based on what is called the mandatory minimum penalty of $3,000 per violation. The water board alleges Modesto had 59 violations, 55 of them were subject to the $3,000 penalty, and the board determined none of the violations was serious. A few violations were not related to the March discharge.
City officials have said the waste water had about 85 percent to 90 percent of its pollutants removed. However, it was not disinfected so it had bacteria in it. But the waste water was quickly diluted because the San Joaquin River was running high and fast, said Andrew Altevogt, the water board’s assistant executive officer. The waste water was released from March 2 through March 31.
Modesto operates two waste-water treatment plants: the Sutter Avenue facility on the Tuolumne River and the Jennings Road facility on the San Joaquin River. Waste water is treated at Sutter and then sent to Jennings for final treatment.
A section of a main sewer line along the Tuolumne River that carries about a third of the city’s sewage to the Sutter plant collapsed under the weight of rising river water. The river water eventually entered the sewer line and overwhelmed the treatment plants. City officials have said the Jennings plant faced severe damage if it did not release the water in to the San Joaquin.
That waste water normally is stored in ponds at Jennings and then used to irrigate nearby land planted with animal feed in the growing season. Other waste water at Jennings is treated to a higher level and can be safely and legally discharged in to the river.
It cost Modesto $1.9 million for contractors to fix and reinforce about 1,100 feet of the sewer line plus roughly $200,000 for city staff’s work. Senior Civil Engineer Collin Yerzy said the Federal Emergency Management Agency has determined Modesto can be reimbursed for much of these costs, and Modesto and FEMA are in talks about that.
Kevin Valine: 209-578-2316