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Davis, California

Tuesday, August 3, 2021

UC Davis fined for polluting Putah Creek

UC Davis, renowned for its strength in the environmental sciences, is guilty of polluting Putah Creek.

The Central Valley Water Board fined the university $78,000 for 34 violations over an eight-year period dating back to 2000. The violations were for excessive levels of aluminum, chlorine, copper, cyanide, coliform, salinity, sediment and acidity.

UC Davis will not contest the fines, said Andy Fell, a spokesperson for the university. The campus attributes 12 of the violations to major storms and has since upgraded its wastewater treatment plant, Fell said.

David Phillips, UC Davis’ interim director of utilities, said the wastewater treatment plant is state-of-the-art, relying on a mix of mechanical, biological and chemical treatments. The violations are minor, he said.

“We literally test our water several thousand times each year and there’s [a few] occasions over the last eight years where there’s been permit violations,” Phillips said. “None of these things pose any kind of real threat to human health or environment and the vast majority of them are very old.”

Beginning in 2000, the water board began assessing automatic penalties for pollution levels that exceed the permitted amount. UC Davis’ penalties backlogged over the last eight years, Fell said.

The Central Valley Water Board could not be reached for comment by press time.

The chemicals in the creek may have come from campus labs that did not dispose chemicals properly, Fell said. But in other cases, “there is no explanation where they came from,” he said.

The university has since upgraded its wastewater treatment plant and will reinforce proper chemical disposal policies, Fell said.

“We think most of these problems have been addressed,” he said.

Last year, the campus invested $20 million in its 8-year-old plant to keep pace with campus growth and improve treatment technology, Phillips said.

In the treatment process, the water passes through a screen into an oxidation ditch and then into a large tank where heavy material settles out, Phillips said. Next, cleaner water is pumped on top of the wastewater and then flows through a series of filters. The water is finally disinfected with ultraviolet light – a new technology that replaces sand, Phillips said.

“By the time we’re done, the treated water meets the state’s highest standard and the water could be used for any purpose,” he said.

Some of the pollution limits the campus exceeded have since been increased as a result of new studies, Phillips said. For example, the limit for aluminum was 87 parts per billion, and the water board detected 141 parts per billion, he said. But the new standard is 200 parts per billion, Phillips said.

“The numbers for metals are still a matter of debate,” he said.

Many people have the misconception that water treatment has to be more vigorous at a university that handles dangerous chemicals, Phillips said. In reality, tests of water coming into the UC Davis plant have shown that it’s cleaner than water entering a city treatment plant, he said.

“We have a lot better control and better education on the campus,” he said.

But not everyone is so quick to dismiss UC Davis’ violations as minor and few and far between.

“We at UCD come out looking like sanctimonious hypocrites,” said Bill Casey, a UC Davis professor of hydrology and soil science, in an e-mail.

“UCD has been smugly claiming a special voice in environmental matter across the state, but treats Putah Creek as a dumping ground,” Casey said, who specializes in the geochemistry of water pollution.

However, the university believes all of the problems have been addressed, Phillips said.

“The campus has made a huge investment in wastewater treatment. As managers of that plant, we consider ourselves to be on the cutting edge of the plant,” Phillips said. “All of those things have been corrected and I think we’re in a really good position to serve the campus without any violations.”

The 70-mile long Putah Creek begins at Cobb Mountain and ends just south of the community of El Macero, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. It flows through the UC Davis Arboretum and is a popular fishing and boating destination.

 

PATRICK McCARTNEY can be reached at campus@californiaaggie.com.

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