Volume XIX, Number 15
July 1 - 8, 1993


By Bill Kirk

(Note: Bill Kirk's reporting reaches a new low this week as he plunges under the city's streets for an in-depth look at the city's sewer system. It's a world of albino cockroaches and ancient, brick-lined conduits, a world very few of us will ever see.)

A photographer and I have a date with the city's Confined Space Team. With the team's help, we're going to explore on of the city's older, brick sewer mains near 25th and N streets. This team is specifically trained and equipped to deal with hazards and problems in small, poorly lit, enclosed spaces which are usually underground, such as sewer mains, water pipes and storage tanks.

John Durrett, a supervisor in the city's sewer division, is ready for us when we arrive. Team leader, Mike Greening, and his assistant, Gilbert Archuletta, have set up a six-foot metal, telescoping tripod and mechanical hoist above an open, 24-inch manhole down which we will soon be descending into a sewer main which was constructed in 1901. Before our arrival, Greening and Archuletta began the required monitoring of toxic gas levels inside the sewer main using an electronic "sniffer" with a long probe to sample the air down below. They are testing for such gases as methane, hydrogen sulfide and carbon monoxide.

As Greening explains, some vehicle exhaust gases, like carbon monoxide, are heavier than air and can collect below the street surface. "Because of the way it reacts with blood cells, it could be hours before the carbon monoxide can work itself out of your system," he said. But we remain undaunted. Okay, a little daunted. So who wants to be dauntless all the time anyway?

As we wait for the "sniffer" to give us our toxic clearance, Durrett describes the city-wide system for which 57 people in the sewer system are responsible. "We manage, monitor and maintain over 1,400 miles of sewer mains which range in size from four inches in diameter to ten feet in diameter which we access through nearly 23,000 manholes," he tells us.

According to Durrett, crews have to be familiar with design and construction technology that spans over a century. And even with modern above-ground monitoring systems, such as remote video inspection, most of their work invariably is in places that are difficult or impossible to get to without going underground.

"Many of the old sewer mains are of brick and mortar construction and are slowly nearing the end of their useful life," he said. Elizabeth Brenner, an analyst with the Department of Utilities, agrees. "Most of the older mains are slated for eventual replacement as part of the city's Capital Improvement Program (CIP)," she says. Current estimates call for spending over $90 million during the next eight years for sewer repair alone. Nearly $300 million more will be needed for system-wide upgrades over the next 30 years.

By 10:00 a.m. we have exhausted all subjects that can be discussed topside. It is time to literally get our feet wet. As fate would have it, photographer Arthur Balderrama loses the coin toss and suits up in "customized' rubber coveralls, boots, gloves and hard hat. Inspiring confidence as he approaches the hole, Balderrama listens intently as team leader Greening remarks that this job is not for the squeamish. Balderrama selflessly volunteers to sacrifice his place in line so that I may go down first.

Using the winch, Archuletta connects the hoist cable to Greening's webbed harness along with a safety rope, secured at the surface, which remains attached to him as long as he is below ground level. As things go in this business, a sense of humor is easy to come by and "industry jokes" are common place. But the safety rope is a tangible reminder of the seriousness of the potential hazards underground. The unstated message is that the rope is there to pull an incapacitated worker out rather than expose a would-be rescuer to an unknown danger down below.

During his descent, Greening inserts a six-inch circular pressure plug into a small lateral feeder main to block the flow of water and sewage from the apartments nearby. We will learn later that both good technique and quick timing are important, particularly when removing the plug. "You learn fast in this business," Greening remarks wryly as we two novices watch with interest.

Next it is Balderrama's turn. For safety reasons, he remain attached to the hoist cable which is slackened to allow him limited but adequate freedom of movement once he is in the large main. Balderrama calls out from below that this is about as much fun as he has had in months. We tell him he really has to get out more.

From his vantage point, Balderrama has to crouch to look up and down the length of the main which is among the largest of the old brick mains. It is 35 inches wide and 54 inches high-oval shaped, noted Durrett, to withstand the pressure from the tons of earth around it.

According to Durrett, these old mains are slowly losing their structural strength due to loss of mortar between the bricks, root intrusions and increasing pressure from the surrounding earth. "Replacement will eventually be necessary," he says.

From inside the hole, Balderrama reports what he is seeing in the beam of his flashlight which strains against the darkness down the long pipe. A dusty mist hangs in the air. The city crews which frequent this underworld daily are well trained to look for common problems such as abnormal water flows, root-bound drain pipes as well as major cracks in the structure of the main. The smells and the insects and rodents which inhabit the underground go virtually unnoticed. "The go with the territory," says Greening.

After several minutes, Balderrama resurfaces, appearing none the worse for wear. Shedding his yellow rubber outfit, he passes it to me for my turn down the hole. Without coaxing, I somehow manage to limit my time at the bottom. My reasoning is once you have seen one albino cockroach, you've seen them all. However, reminding myself that this is for our readers, I stay down under for at least another two full minutes of dispassionate observation for the record.

Realizing we will have other opportunities to observe life underground, and not wanting to get too much of a good thing, I signal my readiness to return to the surface. Thankfully, Archuletta obliges. I would not want to make a habit of going into the sewers. However, for the members of the confined space crews this is all part of the job. As Greening comes out he removes the plug he previously inserted into the small feeder main, staying clear of the resulting gusher while the flow tapers off.

When we have finished our look t this location, Durrett takes us to another work site further down the sewer line where a video inspection unit has set up a demonstration. Parked in the middle lane of N Street, the video monitoring truck pulls a block-long cable along a 12-inch main under the street. At the end of the cable is a video camera riding on a two-foot long sled-like device known as a ferret.

As lead worker Lou Green explains it, the remote camera can fully inspect a block-long sewer main in less than an hour, where before, there was no preventive inspection program and a problem would not be found until it was of crisis proportion. "Then we would have to dig the street up to find and fix it," says Green as we watch the underground view from inside his truck. "The camera is also useful after any contracted sewer construction or repair work," notes remote camera operator Dave Smalley, "to confirm that the city is getting what it pays for."

On another day just as warm, John Durrett is again our guide as we follow the trail of several miles of sewer mains, driving from manhole-to-manhole between the downtown area and the larger of the city's two pumping stations, known as "Sump 2," at 11th Avenue and Riverside Boulevard in the Land Park subdivision. The pumping facility is call a "sump" because below ground under the station is a huge manmade vault, or sump, nearly half a million cubic feet in volume.

Before we get to Sump 2, we stop several places along the route to inspect some of the manhole covers and mains. "As a general rule, the further you go from downtown, the more modern the sewer mains are," explains Durrett. "In fact," he continues, "the mains we will see are top of the line in terms of both size and design."

Using a long iron hook, Durrett pulls the covers off two of the largest mains, one of which is on 5th Street between Broadway and Vallejo and the other near Land Park and 11th Avenue. At five and nine feet in diameter respectively, these mains are specifically designed to carry millions of gallons of water and sewage per day to Sump 2 and then out of the city to a water treatment facility several miles south of Sacramento near the town of Franklin.

Just as a river is fed by its tributaries, these massive mains are the major collectors which receive gravity-fed flows from small- and medium-sized mains throughout the city. Due to the speed and volume of the flows inside them, these large mains are far more dangerous than the old brick mains downtown. But today as we peer down each manhole, the flows appear moderate as we notice an occasional plastic bag or aluminum can float by on their way south.

When we arrive at Sump 2, Steven Douglas is the shift supervisor on duty. "We see a little bit of everything come through this place," he says as he describes the purpose of the pumping station. Water and sewage coming in from all over the city enter the underground vault before passing through several large screens designed to prevent any object larger than two inches in diameter from entering the pumps. "Everything that we get from the city is gravity driven. However, to keep the flows moving south, we have to raise the incoming sewage and water and then pump them under pressure out of our facility."

Douglas uses an electric hoist to lift one of the heavy metal covers, over a surging river of sewage. From my vantage point near the edge of the pit, I can see fast moving water passing through a large 12-by-20 foot screen suspended three stories below us. "We have to clean the screens once each shift," says Douglas, who says he has found bowling balls, 12-foot planks, steel pipes and numerous rats that drown in the sewers during heavy rains. According to Douglas, at maximum capacity, the facility can handle nearly 600 million gallons per days when all pumps are cranking.

In the future, the city plans to segregate its sewer and storm drainage systems which are now largely combined. With a split system, sewage will be processed separately and there should be no direct overflow of raw sewage into the river as may now rarely occur during extremely heavy rains. In those situations, city staff tells us, the sewage is sufficiently diluted not to be a serious health hazard.

Sacramento's underground, although perhaps not a glamorous as the movies, remains a fascinating part of the city's history and its current life. Notably, the original work below ground in the older parts of downtown occurred during the last century (before 1900). As these underground systems continue to age, the city can ill afford for long to defer comprehensive maintenance and replacement. Eventually, the cost of waiting will become prohibitive either in terms of the delayed cost of replacement or the cost of damages resulting from system incapacity.

You can visit the Crocker and Sutter's Fort and get a sense of how early-day residents lived, but-talk about Living History!-downtown residents should get a special thrill knowing that when they flush their toilets, they're using the same sewer system used by the Crockers (the second generation anyway) and a whole slew of governors.

It is our living, if humble, link to history. When the old system is finally dismantled should we expect anything less than a reconstructed portion of the brick sewer line on display in front of City Hall or in Plaza Park, complete with historical plaque? Just the thought of it makes us flush with pride.

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Copyright © 1993 by the Suttertown News and 2002-2015 by billkirkwrites. All rights reserved