Nitrate action plan flows on

The effort to take thousands of homes in the Chico urban area off septic tanks and hook them onto the municipal sewer is making real progress, according to a report offered this week from a county official.

Jennifer Macarthy, a manager with the Butte County Administrative Office, revealed numbers to the Chico City Council this week that showed the unpleasant realities of fixing the problem of nitrates fouling our drinking water is neither as expensive nor encompassing as once thought.

The problem of high nitrate levels in the aquifers under Chico was first identified in 1979, and the high concentration of septic tanks in the area was suspected as the cause. In 1990 the state Regional Water Quality Control Board issued a prohibition order that said if local authorities did not make plans to fix the problem, some 12,000 housing units holding 30,000 residents would face having their water shut off.

Eight years later the city and the county unveiled the draft Nitrate Compliance Plan, which looked to minimize costs to the homeowners forced to hook up to the sewer. Part of the problem was that many of the offending septic tanks were in the county and the city had long required that homeowners looking to hook up to the city sewer needed to annex. Many residents resisted such a move, so the city amended the requirement a few years ago, saying county residents could hook up as long as they agreed to be annexed eventually.

Initially the estimated cost to the city to extend its sewer lines to the problem areas, including Lassen Avenue and “the Avenues” area of north Chico, was estimated to be some $68 million. Cost for homeowners to hook up was estimated to be about $9,000 per house.

Macarthy said this week the estimated cost to the city to complete its part of the plan is now about $43.5 million, and the cost to each homeowner is closer to $4,000. What’s more, the number of houses the state requires to abandon septic has been revised down from 12,000 to about 7,300. And of those, nearly 2,000 have already done so, leaving only about 5,600 units still needing to hook up to the city sewer.

The city is looking to a state loan to cover the $43.5 million. The plans then call for the city to put about $1.9 million each year from its redevelopment funding into an account that will earn interest. Completion of the nitrate cleanup plan is expected to take seven to 10 years. The city would not have to start paying back the state for about another 10 years and then would take about 20 years to pay it off.

Macarthy said Chico’s was the second-largest sewer project going in the state right now. The city is also looking for ways that low-income homeowners can be helped financially in hooking up to the sewer.

City Manager Tom Lando said the new hookups will accelerate the need to expand the sewer, which was last enlarged about seven years ago at a cost of $30 million.