Over the Hill

Litany of fines should be a thing of the past for Paso’s wastewater plant

Wastewater manager Matt Thompson grabs a sample of water from the middle of the treatment process at the Paso Robles sewage treatment plant in May 2015.
Wastewater manager Matt Thompson grabs a sample of water from the middle of the treatment process at the Paso Robles sewage treatment plant in May 2015. jjohnston@thetribunenews.com

Last Friday, the city of Paso Robles (my hometown) was fined $495,000.

It seems our new wastewater treatment plant was guilty of polluting the Salinas River 173 times. The fines were levied by the Central Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board. I read about it in Tuesday’s Tribune.

Those 173 river pollution incidents occurred between Oct. 3, 2013, and June 27, 2016. That’s when Paso Robles was building its $49.6 million wastewater treatment plant and breaking it in.

But this wasn’t the first time a Paso Robles city wastewater treatment plant had polluted the Salinas River. The city’s old wastewater treatment plant was fined an average of $9,000 per month for river pollution from 2008 to 2013, according to previous Tribune stories.

Those $9,000 fines also totaled almost half a million dollars. All that fining was meant to motivate Paso Robles to improve its wastewater treatment plant. The motivation worked. Our new treatment plant started running in the spring of 2015 and committed its last violation in June 2016. It took about a year to fine-tune the new plant and get it running properly.

I actually don’t know how those plants turn wastewater into good water. I should know. I wrote a report about it for the Sept. 26, 1989, Telegram-Tribune. I told of the $5.7 million upgrade that had just been completed for the Paso Robles sewage treatment plant, as it was then called.

But we don’t call them sewage treatment plants anymore, and I respect that. If I worked there and had a daughter in elementary school, I’d understand why she’d prefer saying her dad works at the wastewater treatment plant.

That 1989 expansion of the Paso Robles wastewater plant was necessary because it hadn’t been enlarged since 1970. Paso Robles’ population in 1970 was only 7,168, but in 1989 it was about 16,500.

Today, Paso Robles’ population is about 30,450. So it should be no surprise that that old wastewater treatment plant was polluting the Salinas River, which runs right beside it. River water and piped wastewater flow near each other there, because it’s the lowest place in the valley.

I hope this new wastewater treatment plant is big enough to serve for many years to come. There’s reason to believe it may be. The city’s previous rapid population growth has moderated. In 2006, Paso Robles’ population was 29,000. By 2014 it had only risen to 30,450.

But there is another development besides population growth that could require Paso Robles to enlarge its wastewater treatment plant sooner. That development is increased tourism. The number of hotels in Paso Robles is steadily increasing.

You’ve probably noticed the new or recently built hotels on or near Highways 101 and 46. And more are planned. The people who tour and taste at our surrounding wineries need places to stay. And every hotel guestroom has its own bathroom. All those bathrooms require waste disposal.

Phil Dirkx’s column is special to The Tribune. He has lived in Paso Robles for more than five decades, and his column appears here every week. Reach Dirkx at 805-238-2372 or phild2008@sbcglobal.net.