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Sewers plug up the plans for Delhi

DELHI — A small water and sewer district with a record of chronic environmental violations appears to stand in the path of this town's hope to become a real city.

Incorporation could follow huge shopping centers — with a treasure chest of sales taxes — envisioned in Delhi's recently adopted growth plan. But any new stores, not to mention 5,500 more homes, depend on adequate sewer capacity.

"With any town ballooning up the way Delhi is, there's going to be growth pains," said Randy Beard, a member of the Delhi Municipal Advisory Council and former sewer district director. "The biggest growth pain we have is sewer."

Home builders hoping to mine gold from the future growth explosion say they are increasingly irritated with foot dragging by the Delhi County Water District, whose board directors run water and sewer services.

A consortium of a half-dozen builders worked closely with the advisory council to develop Delhi's growth plan before Merced County supervisors approved it in June. But the water district isn't on the same page, the builders say.

"The community (growth) plan is being held up by the water district," said Chris Hawke of Mission Valley Properties. "They're controlling land use by not supplying the sewer capacity that the community needs."

District officials in 1998 were proud of their new state-of-the-art sewage plant because it required a fraction of the energy used by traditional plants. Curious engineers from as far away as Saudi Arabia came to observe its anaerobic bacteria and algae cleaning waste.

But the Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board says Delhi's plant for years has discharged into the earth twice the maximum amount of organic matter allowed by law.

'District has not moved forward'

Bert Van Voris, a supervising engineer with the water quality control board, said the plant also polluted groundwater when nitrates leached from a pile of solids mucked from the plant's storage ponds. And, the plant needs more disposal land for the amount of wastewater it treats, Van Voris said.

The district's "preoccupation with that, I can understand," said Dennis Cote, a member of the Delhi advisory council and former deputy director of public works in San Benito County.

"But they're also supposed to be serving the community," Cote said. "So far as we can tell, the water district has not moved forward on planning for the expanded systems that would be needed (for Delhi to grow). It's a point of some friction."

Tony Morris, chairman of the water district, said people need to be patient while his board works things out.

"Things don't happen overnight when you're talking about enlarging things," Morris said. "Not everyone moves at the same pace. Some people just want things to happen but they don't understand the background."

Morris refused further comment and calls to the district's contracted engineers at Fremming, Parson & Pecchenino went unanswered.

Merced County Supervisor Deidre Kelsey, who represents Delhi, described sewer board members as "real old school" and "always complaining."

"The water board has the ability to lead the incorporation effort," Kelsey said. "But they're just contrary. They don't want to do anything."

Development group spokesmen say they spent $30,000 for a private consultant to analyze the district's options, but board members haven't jumped at offers to share figures.

"We're just trying to put out a hand and say, 'Hey, we're here to help you,'" said Trevor Smith of Mill Creek Land Co. "But they want to go at their own pace."

Bee staff writer Garth Stapley can be reached at 578-2390 or gstapley@modbee.com.

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