Paradise lost

Public access to Chico oxidation ponds cut off by state regulations

A group of American white pelicans, including one banded at a wildlife refuge in Idaho, visit the Chico Oxidation Ponds Wildlife Sanctuary.

A group of American white pelicans, including one banded at a wildlife refuge in Idaho, visit the Chico Oxidation Ponds Wildlife Sanctuary.

Photo by J.T. Lewis, courtesy of Altacal Audubon Society

In February 2011, Altacal Audubon Society and the city of Chico together celebrated the installation of $400,000 in upgrades to the Chico Oxidation Ponds Wildlife Sanctuary, a series of diversion pools located behind the city’s Water Pollution Control Plant west of town. The improvements were made to increase public access to the pools, a prime North State destination for millions of migrating birds—and the people who love them.

But earlier this month, management at the plant locked the gated entry to the ponds, closing public access for the foreseeable future. The plant’s manager, James Carr, said that state regulators last year determined public access could continue only with the addition of expensive site improvements to comply with statewide public safety and water recycling standards.

The lack of access has ruffled the feathers of local birders.

“The importance of the ponds [to Altacal] is not to be understated,” said Scott Huber, who was the birding group’s president when the improvements were made and currently serves as conservation chair. “It’s the primary site for rare bird sightings in the county. Because the ponds hold water year-round and because of their shallow depth, they provide an important habitat for shorebirds, like sandpipers and plovers, and an excellent opportunity for people to view them.”

According to CN&R archives, the site improvements were part of a $45 million expansion project at the plant funded by a revolving state loan-fund. Upgrades included an Americans with Disabilities Act-compliant, all-weather, crushed-granite pathway leading to the ponds, a gate that can be locked and unlocked by plant workers to limit viewing hours (which were from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.), the removal of invasive plant species and installation of native foliage designed to attract wildlife, and “loafing islands” on the pools to protect birds from predators. Altacal provided a wooden structure, known as a bird blind, for people to use while viewing birds. Prior to the improvements, the ponds were accessed by checking in with plant workers and climbing through a hole in the facility’s fence.

“The city made a substantial investment for all these improvements for public viewing, which made it much easier for novice birders, children, the elderly and people with disabilities to get back there,” said Huber, who noted that visiting birders are a boon to the local economy. “All the money the city directed toward that purpose will be pretty much wasted.”

Carr, who’s worked at the plant since 2001 and been the manager for two years, said birders never presented a problem for his staff and that he’d prefer to leave access the way it was. According to him, the state’s issue with public access is based on the pond’s potential to store untreated sewer water that could present a public health hazard to visitors, even though that has never occurred in his 16 years there.

Carr said the ponds are occasionally used to shift water from one part of the plant to another for maintenance purposes, but water released to the ponds has always been treated. For the most part, he said, water is kept in the ponds year-round solely for the benefit of the birds.

Carr explained that operations at the plant are contingent on permits to allow the discharge of treated wastewater into the Sacramento River. Permits are issued by a state agency, the Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board, every five years. The access issue came up during the last permitting process, in early 2016.

“[The inspector from the water board] made us aware that our ponds have been going on a long time with almost no regulation,” Carr explained. “She was kind of flabbergasted the pools had gone under the radar for so long and told us that we should expect some more stringent criteria going forward.”

Bryan Smith, a supervising engineer with the Central Valley Water Board, said that his agency works with the State Water Resources Control Board’s Division of Drinking Water, which ultimately demanded some upgrades to the ponds and the change in public access.

“We learned we have to install some monitoring wells and start doing regular testing for nitrates [and other substances], and we were basically given two choices regarding public access,” Carr said. “We had to completely eliminate it or install fencing and signage to restrict access near the ponds.”

The plant contracts with an engineering company—Sacramento-based Carollo Engineers—to help work through the permitting process, and Carr said the firm’s estimated cost for a 4-foot fence and signage necessary to limit access per state regulations would be about $140,000.

“It’s not just like we can call a contractor and build any old fence,” Carr said of the price tag. “The regulations include some strict requirements and it’s a city job, so there are extra costs for design and other issues. Considering the fiscally conscientious mindset of the current City Council, we decided the best option would be to close it for now.”

Huber noted that he doesn’t see the access issue as a conflict between Altacal and the city, but more of a bureaucratic problem with state agencies and regulations. Members of Altacal have appealed to City Council members and showed up en masse to that panel’s March 21 regular meeting. At the request of Councilmen Karl Ory and Andrew Coolidge, the issue is agendized for further discussion at the council’s April 18 meeting.

In the meantime, Huber said the closure couldn’t have happened at a more inopportune time.

“A lot [of species] are only here during the spring and fall migration periods, as they’re moving from Central and South America to Canada and Alaska where they nest, and our area is just a stop-over for them,” he said. “Now through the next month is the time of year that the best numbers are out there and we tend to get our best sightings.

“To have it closed now is a real hardship for those of us jonesing for a look at some shorebirds.”