Smells like sewage

Plumbing failure in downtown Chico triggers concerns

Doug Roberts, owner of Duffy’s Tavern, says a smelly stream of sewage has plagued his bar for the past couple of months.

Doug Roberts, owner of Duffy’s Tavern, says a smelly stream of sewage has plagued his bar for the past couple of months.

Photo By Tom gascoyne

Since the middle of January the smell of sewage was thick in the air near the corner of Fourth and Main streets in downtown Chico. Doug Roberts, owner of Duffy’s Tavern, which sits near the corner, also noticed it, as did many of his customers and environmental scientist John Lane, whose office is on the second floor on that corner.

Roberts and Lane both asked the city to look into the matter, as day after day they could see milky-colored water spilling out from under the sidewalk and into the city storm drain directly in front of the Main Street bar called Lost on Main.

Lane said the city’s response initially was slow and that he eventually contacted the State Water Resources Control Board, which in turn contacted the city. Lane’s professional history includes working as a hydrogeologist for a Watsonville company that designed water-supply and wastewater-treatment systems and managed storm-water systems. He took samples of the water and sent them to a lab to test for E. coli and fecal matter.

“The lab called us back and wanted to know where the sample was from because it tested so high in fecal matter and coliform bacteria,” he said. The city, Lane said, could have been cited by the state for violation of the Clean Water Act.

The problem was finally identified and then fixed in mid-March. The trouble was a combination of downtown Chico’s high groundwater levels and old plumbing installed in the downtown building’s basements decades ago. In this case, it was the restaurant and bar called the DownLo, which sits beneath Lost on Main. The building is owned by Dennis Ullrich, and the two bars are managed by his son, Kyle. Neither man could be reached for comment on this story.

Matt Thompson, a senior civil engineer with the city, said the downstairs bar has two sumps, or holding tanks; one to collect rising groundwater, the other to collect sewage from the public toilets. A power failure sometime in January damaged the pump that feeds the sewer sump.

That sump was connected by a pipe to the groundwater sump, and as it backed up with sewage it eventually flowed into the groundwater sump, where it was pumped up and into the storm drain, which eventually empties into Little Chico Creek near the skateboard park on Humboldt Avenue.

“All the pipes are buried under the floor,” Thompson said. “When they put these pumps in many years ago they engineered a connection to keep the basements from flooding should the sewer pump fail.”

The pumps have an alarm should they fail, he said, but the electrical failure fried the alarm.

“When it happened, it worked like it was supposed to when it was designed all those years ago,” he said. “But they are going to retrofit it, so it doesn’t happen again.”

In a letter to Dennis Ullrich, the building’s owner, Thompson said that when the plumbing was installed decades ago a connection between the sumps may have been legal under the existing building code. Today it is not, he said.

“The cross-connection has demonstrated that it is a potential threat to public health and must be eliminated,” he wrote. “Please obtain a plumbing permit and isolate the groundwater sump from the sewer sump.”

Thompson said the Ullriches have been very responsive in the matter.

“I have every belief that they will do what we’ve asked,” he said. “We haven’t considered any fines at this time, because they have been not only cooperative but [also] proactive to try to get this problem identified and resolved.

“I like to reserve fines for people who are, let’s just say, much less civically minded than they’ve been. They’ve been a great help in resolving this issue, so we are going to treat them like partners.”

Thompson said the problem has raised a red flag for the potential for this to happen in other buildings with underground restrooms, such as the University Bar on the corner of Wall and Second streets.

“We put out the fire but learned we have a lot to do, including a survey of downtown businesses to help us identify other places and hopefully get it fixed.”

Roberts, Duffy’s owner, appreciates that the smelly river running in front of his bar is gone, but has some reservations.

“I’m glad it’s been fixed,” he said, “but I do have some concern about how easy it happened and that it could happen again.”