Stalled project caused sewer spill

Ludewig Ranch co-owners Tache and Guy Ludewig spent Saturday

Tache and Guy Ludewig planned to spend Saturday at their San
Martin ranch making the bulk of a year’s profit selling pumpkins.
Instead, they smashed them.
Tache and Guy Ludewig planned to spend Saturday at their San Martin ranch making the bulk of a year’s profit selling pumpkins. Instead, they smashed them.

Some $10,000 worth of pumpkins were ruined hours after an Oct. 13 rainstorm overloaded storm drains and caused a sewer to overflow near the ranch, at 13865 Monterey Road. The sewage was gone within hours, but the odor and pathogens remained for days. The Ludewigs were instructed by county health officials to smash the pumpkins, so passersby didn’t help themselves to sewage-sogged squash.

In one wet day, one of the Ludewigs most profitable seasons turned into a visceral experience.

“Yeah, it was fun. It was sad though,” Tache Ludewig said. North of the ranch is a Christmas tree farm, which was untouched by the 40,000-gallon torrent of raw sewage that flowed over the ranch.

The 20 acres that were flooded included a lawn for special events and seasonal uses, like the Ludewig Ranch Pumpkin Patch, a San Martin tradition which had been open for just two weeks when the storm hit.

This wasn’t the first time the Ludewig Ranch overflowed with sewer. It also happened during the January 2008 storm. The problem arose after the city completed a project that increased sewer capacity in Morgan Hill. The project stretched south to California Avenue, and from there to the Gilroy plant the sewer lines remain the same, smaller size as before.

Public Works Director Jim Ashcraft said it wasn’t the city’s goal to build up the sewer lines to accommodate floodwater.

“It’s not a cost effective thing to say, ‘Let’s increase the capacity to take the highest storm effect,'” he said, adding that increasing the capacity of the sewer lines from California to the Gilroy plant would cost about $15 million.

“It’s no small undertaking. We would rather spend the money to minimize the amount of rainwater that gets into the sewer.”

A more direct measure would be for the water to be diverted via Upper Little Llagas Creek, Ashcraft said. The $105-million project has been stalled for decades. The city is collecting pictures of downtown’s extensive flooding to send to Washington to show the impact of flooding here. Representatives for both U.S. Representatives Jerry McNerney (D-Pleasanton), who represents Morgan Hill, and Mike Honda (D-San Jose), who represents Gilroy and sits on the Senate Appropriations Committee, expressed their sympathies for Morgan Hill’s plight and pledged to continue to fight for Llagas Creek funding.

Ashcraft said about 20 percent of Morgan Hill’s 110 miles of roadways were flooded Oct. 13, over the tops of many, many sewer manholes, the means by which floodwater entered the sewer system.

About 80 percent of the flooded roadways would have stayed dry had Llagas Creek already been finished, Ashcraft said.

While the Santa Clara Valley Water District will pay almost $10 million for the Llagas Creek project and the city has agreed to pay up to $3 million for consulting, the federal government has approved just $287,000 last year and $242,000 this year for preliminary work.

Honda said it’s up to the Army Corps of Engineers, which is responsible for carrying out the project, to keep the ball rolling.

“I will continue to advocate for the completion of this project. It makes sense from every standpoint – business, environmental and social – and I trust the Army Corps will understand its importance and priority,” Honda said.

Sarah Hersh, spokeswoman for McNerney, said the congressman had met with Mayor Steve Tate about the Oct. 13 flooding and fought to have Llagas Creek funded this year.

“The congressman is going to be reaching out to the Army Corps to” get the money allocated so the project can continue, she said.

Gilroy’s Lower Little Llagas Creek was finished more than 10 years ago, and the Oct. 13 storm caused little flooding there.

Usually, the sewer flows at 30 to 50 percent of capacity at peak times, Ashcraft said. But with a fifth of the city’s roads flooded, rain water surged below. Ironically, Ashcraft said if the city hadn’t increased the capacity of its sewer lines, the sewage overflow would have happened downtown.

As Llagas Creek moves forward at glacial speed, the city continues to evaluate its sewer lines and a project to increase capacity in San Martin and Gilroy.

“We realize that right now we have much more capacity (in city limits) and then less capacity to the plant,” Ashcraft said. At some point, the city will begin a joint project with Gilroy to increase capacity in the remaining 10 miles. Studies should be complete by July 2010 on this expansion and how much each city would pay for it, Ashcraft said.

In the meantime, the Ludewigs are taking measures to ensure that overflow doesn’t affect their property a third time by building a berm around the perimeter.

The city has fronted the family $10,000 as “seed money” for the Ludewig’s most immediate needs, Deputy Public Works Director Mori Struve said. This money came out of the city’s risk management insurance.

“We have quite a deal more money to give him,” Struve said. “He has no fault. It was not pleasant. He’s an innocent victim.”

Tache Ludewig said he expected to make as much as $60,000 in profit this month from the pumpkin patch.

Struve said the city’s environmental consulting firm hasn’t tested the soil yet, preferring to wait until it’s turned and dried, turned and dried.

County health officials coordinated the cleanup efforts with University of California Davis, the Environmental Protection Agency and Monterey County, which has a well-developed protocol for sewage spills on agricultural fields after the 2006 Salinas Valley spinach contamination that sickened hundreds.

Tuesday, Ludewig walked around the upheaved lawn portion of his property, pointing out bits of dried-up gray matter, the remnant solids of wastewater.

“I’m just trying to get the place back together right now so it doesn’t affect the future business. I got a call about having a wedding out here in January,” he said. Ludewig credited city staff for being there for him to clean up the mess. The cleanup efforts should be complete within two weeks, meeting all county health and environmental standards, city staff said.

“Those guys have been wonderful. I’m really glad to have people like that on my side,” Ludewig said.