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A recent BenitoLink survey brought up the immortal specter of development and the historical failure of Hollister’s wastewater plants. Of course they are related at some level, but they are light-years from cause and effect. The city knew they had a serious problems with the plants, but failed to adequately address them and take action until it was too late.

More than a decade after the fact it’s past time to kill the urban legends surrounding the failure of Hollister’s wastewater plants. I have heard many versions of this story, but almost none are accurate according to official reports. The fact that I refer to failure of the “wastewater plants” – both plants actually failed – is your first hint that the legends are just that.

Urban legends often fulfill both the political and personal purposes of protecting the power, reputations, careers, and in this case, shifting the blame from the city, where it belonged, to acts of God or animals. The basis of the legends are that we woke up one day and the wastewater plants had failed without warning and through no one’s fault, or perhaps the fault of a defective meter or an ambitious gopher – the truth is that we had warnings galore.

Using official reports one can piece together much of the story.  It’s not a secret, but legends often replace the truth because they are simpler and more palatable explanations. No doubt there are those who have behind the scenes information regarding who said what to whom, but those juicy details tend to muddy the water – they are not the essentials.

If it was good enough for Grandpa…: 

The city’s Waste Discharge Requirement permit (WDR) dated 1987 was about 15 years old when the plant failures occurred because there had not been any major plant expansions or modifications even though the usage had increased and processing capabilities had decreased dramatically during that period.

Failure over time 

“Over time the capacity of the Domestic Wastewater Treatment Plant (DWTP) percolation beds diminished to the point where the ability…to adequately and reliably handle domestic wastewater flows became compromised.”  The diminished capacity of the percolation beds is almost never mentioned. The report does not say over how much time, but the term “over time” usually indicates a long period and some emergency scrambling started in 1998, late in the game but years before the major plant failures of 2001 and 2002.  In fact it was the temporary solution that just made things worse.  

Things get worse and everyone slow-walks a solution

In November 1998, the city requested permission to divert domestic wastewater flow to the Industrial Wastewater Treatment Plant (IWTP).  This was granted, with several conditions, in May of 2000. There is no record of why it took the Regional Water Quality Control Board (RWQCB) so long to grant this temporary change and issue a new WDR, but there is also no record that the city took any extraordinary measures to reduce wastewater flows while they were waiting. The conditions specified in the new WDR revolved around eventual permanent remediation with a “drop dead date” in 2005; we never got that far.

Cracks in the dam, then the break

From June 1, 2001, to March 31, 2002, an estimated 6,100 gallons of treated, un-disinfected wastewater seeped into the inactive San Benito River channel from Percolation Bed 13 of the domestic treatment plant in violation of the WDR for eight months. On May 6, 2002, the levee of the industrial plant Pond 6 (treating domestic wastewater on temporary permit) failed discharging an estimated 15 million gallons of un-disinfected domestic wastewater into the San Benito River channel.

It was the measuring device, naturally

One of the first questions was, did the City’s domestic wastewater flows exceeded permitted capacities during 2001 and 2002?  According to the RWQCB, their staff became concerned that some of the plant influent [in-flow] measurements may not have been accurate, overloading the system. The bond report put it exactly the other way around: “some reported violations were the result of inaccurate flow measurement equipment.”  It’s hard to believe that the flow meter could read too low and too high, both at the same time. Well, meters don’t have any mouths to feed.

The gopher disappears and, hopefully, an urban legend dies

I could find no official version claiming, as so may do, that the gophers did it. If so, surely, someone was responsible for inspecting the levees before exposing them to millions of gallons of wastewater and periodically thereafter. It simply looks like the usual political, management, and technical failures. However, if you were the gopher involved and want to confess, please email me with the details.