Leaking ACID Canal Getting Old for Waterlogged Residents; Health Concerns Arise

A green pond of algae from ACID canal seepage was starting to smell near the corner of Jacqueline Street and Dolores Avenue in Anderson in June. Photo by Mike Chapman.

(Please join me in welcoming journalist Mike Chapman to A News Cafe with his first story about an important North State issue. Mike, we’re so glad you’re here, and look forward to seeing more of you and your work here. ANC publisher Doni Chamberlain.)


Picture residential streets where cars round the corner and splash mucky water connected to small, algae-filled ponds that fester on the roadway’s edge.

Look around and wonder why a port-a-potty sits just outside someone’s front door. Another street over, wooden pallets provide a dry walkway over standing water so the residents don’t get their shoes wet and muddy when they walk to and from their car.

A port-a-potty sits in an Anderson neighborhood that’s affected by massive water seepage from the ACID canal. Photo by Mike Chapman.

What’s going on in this quiet neighborhood just outside the Anderson city limits that borders on the Anderson-Cottonwood Irrigation District (ACID) Canal?

A makeshift wooden bridge crosses over water coming from the ACID canal in an Anderson neighborhood. Photo by Mike Chapman.

For several months now, residents and ACID officials have been dealing with water – too much of it – that’s seeped from cracks in the mostly earthen canal and filled nearby yards to overflowing. It’s made life insufferable for dozens of waterlogged residents who live along Jacqueline, Hill, Millicent and Lucille streets. Other stretches along the canal are wet, too, leading to growing health concerns.

Water seeping underground from the ACID canal extends onto Jacqueline Street in Anderson across the street from the Tree of Life International Charter School. Photo by Mike Chapman.

The water took over one home on Jacqueline Street to the point it became unlivable. ACID paid for the woman and her three children to live elsewhere for a stint. She now worries about long-term damage from water sitting under her house.

The leaking canal also is a pain for hundreds of irrigators downstream who count on the summer flows to keep their pastures and farms green but aren’t getting their full water allotment.

“We are currently seeing entire neighborhoods in Anderson with significant flooding from the seepage. I’m getting calls from ranchers in Cottonwood that also aren’t getting their water,” ACID board Vice President James Rickert told the Shasta County Board of Supervisors at the end of May.

“We’ve got a crisis on our hands,” Rickert said.

Flooded septic systems a concern

The troubles with flooded homes and yards began about the third week in April when ACID began diverting water from the Sacramento River in an annual practice dating back to the canal’s inception around 1914.

The water flows into 35 miles of the main canal and into 100 miles of laterals and ditches that stretch from Redding to Cottonwood in Shasta and Tehama counties. Last year the canal was dry because the irrigation district didn’t receive its full allotment due to the drought, but this year is a different story.

Irrigation water flows along a lined section of the ACID canal near Hill Street in Anderson. Photo by Mike Chapman.

A major issue is when the irrigation water – not exactly the cleanest when it’s siphoned from the Sacramento River – oozes from the ground to inundate septic systems with several feet of water, flooding leach fields and slowing percolation rates.

One resident on a septic system said he prays every time his family flushes the toilet that the sewage doesn’t back up into the shower.

The water has mercifully subsided since its peak at the end of April and May, but some residents still can’t flush their toilets and rely on a port-a-potty, also paid for by ACID. Some are using their RVs to go to the bathroom.

The water table has risen not only around septic systems’ leach fields, but around residential wells, leading one former Redding health professional to question whether that pumped water is safe to drink without getting sick.

“I sure in the hell wouldn’t be drinking my water during all this, that’s for sure,” said one resident who asked to remain anonymous as the septic issue gains more and more attention.

Canal-caused calamities

Several residents who spoke to A News Cafe described their experiences of trying to cope with their soggy ordeal.

Water from the canal continues to leach into Lance Martin’s backyard off Jacqueline Street, where ankle-deep water created a swamp on parts of his 20-acre property.

“We’re still flooded,” Martin said at the end of June. “My backyard has got standing water in it. I’ve trenched it so it’s gone down a little bit, but it’s still standing water.”

Martin said he was running sump pumps in the beginning to keep water away from his home, outdoor gazebo and shop, but the electricity bill got too expensive.

“I was trying to keep (the water) away from my house and out of my leach fields … that’s where the flooding is the worst,” he said. “All my neighbors are flooded out, too. There’s about five of us in there, about 120 acres.”

He said he’s able to use his bathrooms but isn’t sure about neighbors in smaller lots whose leach fields sit on top of one another.

He said some residents wanted their septic tanks pumped to prevent them from backing up, but added: “It’s not going to do any good to pump your tank because water is just going to come back in through your leach lines. It’s just contaminated dirty water.”
“It’s not really sewage, it’s just leach water, you know what I mean? It’s not raw sewage from your tank,” he said.

Martin said his marshy backyard makes his dog kennel unusable and he doesn’t want his dogs running around and getting muddy. “You can’t play with your dog in the yards anymore (with leach field concerns),” he said.

Martin said his well is working fine; he’s not afraid of his leach fields contaminating his well water.

“Our well is down far enough. You have a sanitary seal on those wells,” he said. “But some people, their wells aren’t as deep and theirs could be affected. We haven’t had our tested or anything like that.”

Martin believes the squishy ground led to a gray pine, with its shallow roots, to topple recently on his neighbor’s land. “They can only get saturated for so long,” he said.

Wind taking down trees isn’t all of it. The mosquito population is soaring.

“Mosquitoes are crazy around here right now,” Martin said in a May video posted on Facebook. Other videos he took show the water coursing through his property.

“It’s getting very old,” he said.

Another homeowner’s experience
Tony Montgomery on Dolores Street said a river of water ran through his front lawn where his septic system’s leach field sits underground. The other day he used his shoe to push on the ground in his side yard to show how wet it still was, although triple-digit heat is helping to dry things out. Thankfully his well sits farther back in his rear yard.

Tony Montgomery stands in front of his home on Dolores Street in Anderson where seepage from the ACID canal previously flooded his front yard along with his septic system’s underground leach field. Photo by Mike Chapman.

Montgomery said the canal leakage is the worst he’s seen in the four years he’s lived there. He said he and his neighbors usually expect seepage when the canal is first filled in the spring, but it usually goes away as flowing water reduces the cracks.

“Our biggest worry was our septic, but we haven’t had any septic problems now. Knock on wood,” he said. “We’re just praying to God every time we flush the toilet it doesn’t back up into the shower.”

He called a plumber weeks ago and was put on a standby waiting list for an emergency response in case his septic failed.

It was a different story at one of his neighbor’s homes as he said water streamed through their yard and went down Hill Street.

“Their septic system has an alarm system on it. And those people got flooded out of that house. They couldn’t even stay in that house. And for weeks and weeks and weeks, you could hear the alarm system of the septic system going off,” Montgomery said.

Algae-filled water slowly flows past homes and down Jacqueline Street as flooding continues from the ACID canal in June. Photo by Mike Chapman.

Montgomery doesn’t need to water his lawn nowadays. Now that he’s able to mow his lawn, he needs to do it every three days while his rose bushes are going crazy. He worries, though, about the long-term effects of moisture under his foundation and hopes his kids’ allergies don’t get any worse.

“It’s the aftermath I’m more worried about now,” he said. “We’ve already talked to our insurance agent and we’re covered pretty much, but it doesn’t cover under flood insurance.”

A lesson from Michigan

Randall Smith, a retired anesthesiologist in Redding, recently brought questions to A News Cafe about hidden health consequences when leach fields flood in the vicinity of residential water wells.

“It’s a first-class potential public health emergency and we aren’t hearing boo about it,” Smith said. “The Board of Supervisors may have heard about it, but did they put out an encyclical (official letter) to the county? No.”

Randall Smith of Redding, a retired anesthesiologist, talks about potential health issues from septic system leach fields being flooded near residential wells caused by seepage from the ACID canal. Photo by Mike Chapman.

The situation made Smith think back to when he was in medical school and studied a well-known public health finding in the late 1960s by the University of Michigan.

Smith said at least a dozen residents in a rural Michigan community at the time suffered an outbreak of hepatitis A.

“All the alarm bells went off in the county health office because they had all this hepatitis A and they might have one case a year,” Smith said.

Algae grows in a semi-stagnant pond along Jacqueline Street in Anderson as a result of water making its way from the ACID canal. Photo by Mike Chapman.

The townspeople lived in homes scattered along a limestone aquifer that was their source of well water. Smith said the university study discovered a sick hepatitis carrier was flushing a toilet into their septic system with the virus-laden effluent spreading into the aquifer.

“Viruses went right through as they do and came up in the wells of downstream property owners. The aquifer was like a river underground feeding all of these wells … they cross-infected each other,” Smith said.

Smith thinks the Michigan experience should serve as a warning here and that wells in the canal-saturated zones should be tested for seemingly ever-present E. coli bacteria and other contaminants.

Environmental health weighs in

The Shasta County Department of Environmental Health has become more aware of the water issues since the end of June, said the agency’s director, Jim Whittle.

“We obviously are aware of, in the news, the concerns of excess water seeping out of the canal as a potential problem for what’s going on,” Whittle said.

A pool of water, caused by underground leaks from the nearby ACID canal, sits in an Anderson home’s driveway in June. Photo by Mike Chapman.

Higher-than-normal levels of groundwater from abundant rainfall also could be a factor.

Nonetheless, as a precaution, Whittle recommends having one’s water tested if a leach field has flooded in the vicinity of a well.

“If you’re in an area that’s pretty saturated and you have a well, it would be worthwhile to sample that well,” he said.

“(If) they’re worried a leach field might be impacting their well, they may want to get the sample of the well and potentially, don’t drink the water until they have verified it’s free of bacteria,” Whittle said.

He said his agency takes calls from people concerned about the condition of their well water and guides them on disinfecting wells. He emphasized his agency isn’t in charge of ACID.

Environmental Health hadn’t received any requests to sample the water toward the end of June and would only conduct tests if asked to.

“We don’t do sampling of people’s wells unless they call us and request it,” Whittle said. “There’s a fee for the sampling and lab fee.”

Water professionals can be hired to take samples, too, and residents also could grab samples themselves, he said.

Modern wells use seals to keep them sanitary, but people might be on older wells with a degraded casing.

“You might not have the kind of seal that we require,” Whittle said. “Unpermitted wells – wells drilled prior to permits – might be a greater concern because they may allow for contamination from the surface to get down into the well water. We give people guidance for that.”

A homeowner with a contaminated well can get it disinfected.

“We’ve seen holes in (the top of well casings) and anything that gets down into a well can cause contamination,” Whittle said.

That contamination can be in the form of E. coli and animal waste.

“In which direction the effluent may travel is really hard to know,” Whittle said. “Normally it would go straight down.”

If the first water samples show a problem, Whittle said additional sampling would be needed to see if nitrates were present.

Another danger could be mold in a house due to excessive moisture and little airflow.

“We don’t regulate mold in anybody’s residences. Residents who are concerned or see mold, we have a guidance document from the California Department of Public Health,” Whittle said. “In many cases (such as large areas of black mold), it warrants hiring professionals to deal with it.”

County cooperation sought

The ACID board has devoted a number of special and regular meetings to deal with the flooding and hired two engineering firms to find solutions.

In his presentation to the Board of Supervisors, ACID’s Rickert asked Shasta County for an emergency declaration as a way of attracting state and federal funding.

James Rickert, vice president of the Anderson-Cottonwood Irrigation District board, describes multiple problems created by the leaking canal during a May 30, 2023, meeting of the Shasta County Board of Supervisors. Photo by Mike Chapman.

“We know this is going to be an insurmountable cost to our district,” he said.

The $14 million the irrigation district has in its reserves is “a drop in the bucket” for the money that’s needed to make any fixes, Rickert said.

The Shasta supervisors asked to have county officials, including from Public Works, meet with ACID representatives to see what could be done. At least one supervisor, District 2’s Tim Garman, has been at meetings where he’s heard residents complain. Rickert said he’s also been in contact with District 5 Supervisor Chris Kelstrom.

Rickert said when canals go dry, as the ACID canal did last year for the first time in its history, they break their seals. Rodents such as gophers making tunnels in the clay soil didn’t help.

Some Anderson residents used pumps and hoses to divert water from their property due to flooding from the ACID canal. Photo by Mike Chapman.

In order to see the soil better, he said ACID spent thousands of dollars clearing years of overgrown vegetation, including spots thick with blackberries.

“But yet what is happening, it’s not visible. It’s really invisible, the cracks,” he told the supervisors.

“Septic systems are failing, water is fully saturated their properties. They’re placing boards to get from their front door to their cars, just to be able to get to their car without soaking their feet,” Rickert said.

ACID’s downstream water users, of which there’s nearly 800, are suffering too, Rickert told the board. At the time, ACID was diverting 270 cubic-feet per second of water from the Sacramento River into the main canal, but only 135 cfs were reaching Cottonwood.

“So 50% of that water is coming out of the canal through seepage and other issues,” he said on Day 40 of the calamity.

A pond created by seepage from the ACID canal floods the intersection of Dolores Avenue and Jacqueline Street in Anderson in June. Photo by Mike Chapman.

Solutions in the works?

Rickert said part of the reason ACID reached out to the county is to remove water from the roadsides, since the district has no jurisdiction on county right-of-ways.

The district also was talking to landowners about re-establishing drainage ditches that have filled in over the years.

One engineering-firm solution was to install shallow de-watering wells in order to lower the groundwater. However, pumping potentially contaminated water back into the canal got the attention of the state Water Resources Control Board and the need for a discharge permit.

“We just want to solve a problem and we’ve got to kind of wade through the red tape and all the different things to figure out how we can help,” Rickert said in an interview.

Rickert, an ACID user himself who was elected to the board last year, said it’s ironic that some of his family members were instrumental in the canal’s development back in the 1900s.

“I felt compelled to get involved because I don’t want ACID to go under on my generation’s watch,” he said.

He said refurbishing the canal – such as lining it with concrete – would amount to “one of the biggest public works projects we’ve ever seen in Shasta County.
“We really want to get after some grand opportunities and see what we can do to make meaningful improvements to the system,” Rickert said of the ACID board.

Mike Chapman

Michael Chapman is a longtime journalist and photographer in the North State. He worked more than 30 years in various editorial positions for the Redding Record Searchlight and also covered Northern California as a newspaper reporter for the Siskiyou Daily News in Yreka and the Times-Standard in Eureka, and as a correspondent for the Sacramento Bee.

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