Growth May Trickle Down Tainted Water
Growth may trickle down tainted Water Print E-mail

 Alex Breitler
Record Staff Writer
Published Sunday, Oct 30, 2005

BEAR VALLEY -- It's all downhill from here.

Snow melt trickles into tiny tributaries, picking up speed while tumbling toward the Stanislaus River and ultimately the Valley floor -- a 7,000-foot drop. 

Same water. Different worlds.

Pesticides, heavy metals and pathogens mix with the runoff as it cascades around cattle pastures, deserted mines, farmers' fields and cities.

In general, the lower you go, the dirtier the flow.

Way up in Bear Valley, near the crest of the Sierra Nevada, the water is at its best. But a battle over wastewater spills from the Bear Valley Water District has raised fears of a dangerous new precedent for the state's highest, most pristine waterways.

The district, serving a tourist ski resort, generates too much wastewater for its storage reservoir. Melting snow pushes the pond higher, sometimes spilling its banks and dumping treated sewage into nearby Bloods Creek and ultimately the Stanislaus River.

Millions of gallons of wastewater were flushed downstream in the past decade, reports say. The problem was particularly acute from 1995 to 1999, when the reservoir spilled 16 million gallons -- enough to fill 20 Olympic-size swimming pools.

 Things might get worse. Bear Valley is expected to triple in population in coming years. With this knowledge, state water quality officials recently issued a permit allowing spills under certain circumstances, despite opposition from the state Department of Health Services and downstream users such as the Stockton East Water District.

The water board says there are few alternatives.

But Health Services argues legalizing Bear Valley's spills could prompt other water districts to do the same, seeking the cheapest way to get rid of their wastewater. This could accelerate growth and taint clean water urgently needed to flush out the polluted San Joaquin River and the salty Delta.

"The value of water from the Stanislaus River will diminish to the point where ever-increasing releases will provide less and less benefit," wrote Health Services engineer Joseph Spano in a letter to the Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board.

The Stanislaus, which provides water for most of Calaveras County and for Stockton, must be protected "more vigorously than ever before," he wrote.

Rules guarding the water supply have tightened over the years, and with just 600 hookups, the Bear Valley district says it doesn't have a lot of money to upgrade. It sprays wastewater onto surrounding hillsides during the summer, emptying the reservoir as much as it can. But there's not enough land.

The district's critics have suggested trucking the wastewater elsewhere or making snow for skiing. But those choices are too expensive, said David Ritchie, president of the water district's board.

By conserving water, the district has averted overflows the past couple of years, he said. Spilling wastewater remains a last resort.

"Hopefully, we will never do it," Ritchie said.

Last-minute changes to the permit require new filtration and a better chlorination system. Spilled water also must meet certain dilution standards.

"That permit was just not going to fly at the present level of treatment," said Greg Vaughn, a senior engineer for the regional water board.

The new requirements helped ease the fears of the Stockton district, general manager Kevin Kauffman said.

"You're never fully satisfied," he said. "Ideally, being downstream of a wastewater treatment plant, we'd prefer that they not discharge to any tributary of our water supply. At the same time, you cannot tell communities upstream how they can or can't discharge."

Murphys architect Michelle Plotnik said the permit should boost the area's economy. Builders will show more interest in Bear Valley if they can connect to the sewer system.

"With a permanent solution, I think they will feel much more enthusiastic about pushing forward," she said.

Contact Reporter Alex Breitler at 209 546-8258 or \n This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it
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