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Rebuilding Paradise: Time to Consider Sewers

Paradise is the largest incorporated city west of the Mississippi River lacking a public sewer system. The town of of 27,000 relies on septic systems, now potentially damaged. Without sewers, multi-family housing construction becomes more difficult.
December 20, 2018, 10am PST | Irvin Dawid
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Sharon Hahn Darlin

The lack of sewers hampers economic and housing development and threatens water supplies with pollution from failing septic systems. A sewer project feasibility report was released two years ago, something that will have to be considered in the rebuilding efforts. But the first order of business is cleanup from California's largest and deadliest wildfire.

"The colossal effort to clear Butte County of the rubble, and make way for recovery of the town of Paradise and its neighbors, is expected to last at least a year," reports Kurtis Alexander for the San Francisco Chronicle. "The trucks and trains being mobilized for the work are prepared to take out as much as 8 million tons of material — almost four times what was removed from last year’s Northern California fires."

Alexander describes various aspects of dealing with all the hazardous materials caused by the Camp Fire, which killed at least 85 people, including "how potentially damaged septic systems in Paradise could harm the landscape."

“It appears that Paradise is the largest incorporated city west of the Mississippi that is wholly dependent on septic systems,” the town’s then-vice mayor, Jody Jones, who is now mayor, told Chico City Council members at their meeting on Sept. 1, 2015, reported Robert Speer for the Chico News and Review. “This is not something to be proud of.”

Hooking up with the Chico sewer system was the Paradise Town Council's preferred alternative among three listed.

Dealing with potentially damaged septic systems and the lack of sewers is also covered by Chronicle reporter J.K. Dineen in a comprehensive article on the major obstacles to rebuilding in Butte County. By all accounts, it's going to take a long time for the 13,972 homeowners who lost their residences in the fire which destroyed 18,804 structures.

[F]or those who decide to rebuild, it may be years, even a decade, before construction workers show up to pour a foundation and hammer 2-by-4s.

In addition to determining whether to rebuild in the wildland–urban interface (see AP interview with retiring Cal Fire Director Ken Pimlott), Paradise needs to consider whether to replace its septic systems where appropriate. According to a description of the July 2017 final feasibility report for the sewer project:

As the town has grown and evolved, the need for a better means of wastewater collection and treatment, particularly in the higher density and use, commercial areas, has become more urgent. This issue has been demonstrated within the town’s more developed downtown and other commercial areas where septic system failures are increasing and available land for replacement leach fields is constrained, or non-existent.

The lack of sewers constrains housing as well as economic development:

Additionally, a central sewer system would provide more housing options, including multi-family residential units.   With the addition of a sewer, parcels that have been unsuitable for multi-family developments due to their wastewater usage would have that option opened to them. This would help the Town in its efforts to provide adequate affordable housing for Paradise families.

"The challenges of having only individual septic systems for treatment and disposal have been apparent to the Town for 30 years," states the webpage. Now would seem like the right time for the town to act. Five options are listed. Hopefully, they won't opt for the last one: "No Project."

Full Story:
Published on Saturday, December 8, 2018 in San Francisco Chronicle
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