Finally hooking up

What a sewer system will mean to Chapmantown

Matt Thompson, a city of Chico senior civil engineer, stands at the cross streets of Boucher and Wisconsin on the sewer cover where the construction is set to begin.

Matt Thompson, a city of Chico senior civil engineer, stands at the cross streets of Boucher and Wisconsin on the sewer cover where the construction is set to begin.

Photo by Kyle Delmar

Get connected: For more information on sewer-connection fees and costs, and financial assistance available to income-eligible “hot-spot” property owners wanting to connect to city sewer, contact Butte County Programs Development Manager Jennifer Macarthy at 538-7281.

Twenty years ago last month, the Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board issued Prohibition Order No. 90-126, banning the use of septic tanks in the Chico Urban Area by 1995. The ominous-sounding directive to property owners was based on the discovery of nitrates in the local shallow groundwater directly related to septic-system use.

To date, no deadline has been issued for mandatory hook-up to the city’s sewer system, which sends household wastewater discharges to the city’s Water Pollution Control Plant (WPCP) for treatment—largely due to the prohibitive costs of installing the extra infrastructure required for connecting.

But this past April 22, residents of south Chico’s Chapmantown neighborhood—one of six identified “hot spots” notable for high population density and lack of access to city sewer—were informed at a well-attended community meeting that it’s just a matter of time before the Chapman-Mulberry neighborhood will have the opportunity to hook up.

Installation of sewer “mains” and “laterals” in this neighborhood—a largely unincorporated area notable for its lack of sidewalks, poor drainage during the rainy season and aging septic systems—is anticipated to start sometime this summer.

Mains are the pipes that run beneath the middle of the street, while laterals are the smaller pipes that come off of the mains to the edge of a property.

Under the conditions of the Nitrate Compliance Plan, residents will have a large chunk of the cost of hooking to city sewer waived thanks to a joint city-county funding arrangement that relies on a $38 million loan from the State Water Resources Control Board and, among other things, takes care of the one-time $2,251 WPCP plant-capacity fee necessary for each hot-spot home to connect.

Individual property owners, however, will be responsible for hooking their homes to the lateral pipes—a task that involves “gluing plastic pipe together and getting it at the right slope, and a lot of nasty digging,” said Matt Thompson, one of the city of Chico’s senior civil engineers—and having their septic tanks properly decommissioned.

Installation of the sewer lines is expected to take seven to eight weeks, and it is up to property owners to voluntarily connect. No deadline has been set by local authorities. Of course, the earlier they connect the better, as the state will at some point enforce compliance with the prohibition order once sewer lines are available. The project, said Thompson, “brings sewer to virtually the whole Chapmantown area, and makes it much more viable for the balance.”

It’s the biggest infrastructure change in the modern history of the area, and one that will change the neighborhood in ways both predictable and not. Add-ons such as laundry rooms and in-law units not feasible under the current septic set-up will become possible, as will the construction of businesses, such as laundromats and restaurants, that have a large output of wastewater.

And the inevitable question lingers: How will sewer availability affect future development in Chapmantown?

“We have to do it,” said Enloe Medical Center nurse Mark Hooper, who has lived in Chapmantown since 1976, in large part because he relishes the rural character of the neighborhood. “A lot of the [septic] tanks are hand-done, so they leak. I know of one that is 12 feet deep with a soil bottom; the weight of the water [in the tank] is just pushing sewage into the ground.”

Many of these handmade tanks, said Hooper, were built in the 1920s, ’30s and ’40s from homemade concrete made affordable—but more prone to crumbling—by a high gravel content.

Hooper said he knows of one septic tank made simply from “two pieces of culvert pipe stood end to end on a clay-dirt bottom with redwood planks on top.”

One triplex in the neighborhood, on an eighth of an acre, said Hooper, has its septic-system “leach lines” located underneath its parking lot.

“A leach line works through evaporation,” he explained. “The [waste]water [from the septic tank] is supposed to evaporate up through the soil, to the grass, to the roots of the trees. Instead of going up and having the pollutants absorbed by plants at the surface, the water goes down and into the groundwater because it pretty much has to.”

Also, added Hooper, when the ground is saturated with septic wastewater, there is nowhere for the rainwater to go in the winter.

“Putting in a sewer system will help with drainage problems,” he said.

There are additional perks to putting in a sewer system. Thompson pointed out that, “aside from cleaning up the groundwater,” hooking up to the city’s sewer system “offers other opportunities, such as the ability to remodel, install swimming pools, garbage disposals … and in-law units,” and make “minor land divisions”—small lot divisions, into two or three parts, “through a process that is easier than doing a full-on subdivision or a parcel map.

“Those kinds of things will become available—and property will become more valuable,” said Thompson. “I think people realize that, in the long run, sewers will be an asset to their community.

“It’s a given that property that people were unable to develop before will be developed,” said Thompson. “But guiding that is the [Chapman/Mulberry Neighborhood Plan]—it’s not like it’s going to be a hog-wild bulldoze-and-put-up-20-story-condos.” One of the stated aims of the neighborhood plan, adopted by the Chico City Council in 2004, is “to preserve and enhance the single-family residential character of the neighborhood core.”

Some people at the April 22 meeting, Thompson said, “were upset because it’s just sewers—no storm drains, no sidewalks, no paving improvements, and I apologize for that. But that’s what the funding’s for—just to allow everybody to comply with the prohibition.”

And, significantly for Chapmantown, which historically has prided itself on its independence as a distinct neighborhood with its own character, Thompson pointed out that annexation to the city of Chico is not required for hot spots in order to connect to city sewer.

Butte County Supervisor Jane Dolan, who counts the Chapman-Mulberry neighborhood as part of her supervisorial district, echoed Thompson on the subject of annexation.

“No one will be required to annex because of this program,” said Dolan. “And that’s a change in city policy specifically because of the nitrate plan. Except for this nitrate program, if you connect to city sewer, you need to annex.”

The goals of the Nitrate Compliance Plan, said Dolan, are “to have good water quality, and to find a way to make [connecting to sewer] affordable.

“The nitrate program is paying for construction right to the person’s property line. Normally, a new subdivision would pay for that. But these folks didn’t build the house in 1920. We’re correcting property that’s a century old in some cases, and trying to make it as affordable as possible.”

Neighborhood workshops on how to connect homes to laterals (for those not intending to hire a contractor to do the work) are planned for the Chapman-Mulberry neighborhood, Dolan said.

Specific trees are identified in the Chapman/Mulberry Neighborhood Plan (which Dolan helped author) as some of the elements necessary to help maintain the rural character of the area. These trees, Dolan emphasized, will not be disturbed in the process of installing sewer lines.

She also mentioned that there are several small pockets that do not qualify for the nitrate program as “the density is low enough to not meet scientific analysis of loading nitrates into the soil.” Also, laterals for empty lots will not be funded by the Nitrate Compliance Plan, as “we will not use public money to fund future development.”

“Drainage will be improved once sewers come in,” she added, “because we will be removing water that goes into the leach lines.”

Dolan cited the situation of an apartment-complex parking lot in the Avenues that flooded every rainy season while still on a septic system. It experienced a significant improvement in drainage, she said, once it connected to sewer.

Additional funding is needed, however, she added, “to upgrade streets and improve drainage” in Chapmantown.

The construction of a laundromat or a restaurant in Chapmantown will become possible when the neighborhood is connected to city sewer, Dolan pointed out, before stressing that, “This is a project to bring in a sewer system, and to connect people on older septic systems to sewers. It’s not a set-up for annexation. It’s not a set-up for dense development. It’s not a set-up to change the character of the neighborhood.”