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District Looks to Prevent Another ACID Canal Calamity

ACID’s diversion dam is located at Lake Redding Park on the Sacramento River. Photo by Mike Chapman.

The last time A News Cafe wrote about the Anderson-Cottonwood Irrigation District, dozens of residents were fed up with canal water seeping underground and creating a soggy springtime mess that lasted into the summer.

Cracks in the canal soaked nearby lawns and sent fields overflowing. Homes that were all of a sudden surrounded by water became unlivable, forcing residents to evacuate. Algae-tainted pools of standing water persisted for weeks along residential streets, raising concerns from a nearby school.

Ducks forage for food in the algae- and weed-choked ACID canal at the end of October 2023 in Redding. Photo by Mike Chapman.

Residents dug shallow ditches and brought in pumps in desperate attempts to divert the water elsewhere. Toilets quit flushing when septic tanks backed up. The mosquito population skyrocketed.

Many nervous homeowners wondered if the property damage would be long-lasting.

Now, with the irrigation season over and the canal taken offline for the winter, ACID is moving forward with emergency plans it hopes will reduce future calamities.

Some of the costly work will line parts of the canal with a sprayed-on concrete coating called Shotcrete, a product that’s used to make swimming pools, and for other applications, such as tunnels.

Piping could replace a small stretch of an open ditch to make it water-tight. And in some spots, a simple fix might involve compacting the dirt with heavy equipment to fill in earthen cracks.

The district and contractors are in a race against time – and the weather – to make repairs before the next irrigation season begins about mid-April.

For one thing, there’s no more talk of the district returning to an earlier quick-fix scheme. The idea back in June was to dig at least one “dewatering” well in a particularly wet residential area and have the potentially contaminated water pumped back up into the waterway.

A whistleblower alerted county and state agencies and the plan didn’t go any further.

A public outcry and smelly water

Residents living near the 1917-era canal that flows from Anderson to Cottonwood went to board meetings starting in May to give first-hand accounts of the water-seepage woes.

There were community fears that an all-out health crisis would develop should overflowing septic tanks contaminate nearby domestic water wells and get people sick.

The ACID diversion dam sends water from the Sacramento River into the district’s canal each year. This year leaks from the 35-mile canal and its ditches flooded some homes next to the canal. Photo by Mike Chapman.

The flooding forced some families out of their homes because their plumbing no longer worked. Residents with recreational vehicles moved into them as their temporary home. In at least one case, the district paid for a family with three kids to stay in an Airbnb until the water subsided.

District directors heard story after story at their meetings. A woman said “her leach fields are seeping into water that the kids are playing in and how the damage is extensive,” according to minutes from a May meeting.

The Lucille Street resident said her bathtub wouldn’t drain because her septic tank was full and the water smelled like a sewer. Other neighborhoods were lucky to have municipal water and sewer services.

The district agreed to pay for some port-a-potties that sat outside peoples’ front doors. Neighbors placed wooden planks outside their homes as the water rose so they could make it to their cars without getting their feet wet.

A resident on Spring Gulch Road noted how the “bugs were horrendous” and the cost to run two pumps was expensive.

Donna Heller, an administrator of the Tree of Life International Charter School on Jacqueline Street, told the board at one meeting in May that she was concerned for the 325 children and 50 adults on campus. She described water seeping through the school’s parking lot and was “worried about the water being contaminated from the septic tanks,” according to minutes.

On May 29, a 52-year resident of Jacqueline Street was quoted in meeting minutes that he’d “never seen water this bad and called it a “monumental problem.”

The approximately 800 irrigators were upset, too, about water rotations taking longer.

At the end of May, board member James Rickert admitted the situation was devastating and that ACID was in a crisis mode.

A canal gone bad

Justin Dahl, the new ACID general manager, told his board of directors in June that while the district couldn’t afford to make canal fixes in past years, it could now afford to address the situation.

ACID netted about $7.5 million from about $10 million in gross water sales to area districts in the drought-ravaged summer of 2022. The district only received about 18% of its historical water allotment from the federal government due to the drought and the board decided to sell what little water it had since it wouldn’t be able to satisfy all its irrigators.

Inmates from the Ishi Conservation Camp help Anderson-Cottonwood Irrigation District employees remove flashboards from the diversion dam on the Sacramento River in Redding on Nov. 6, 2023. The district installs the seasonal dam in April to divert water from the river into its irrigation canal and then dismantles the dam in the fall when irrigation season ends. Photo by Mike Chapman.

The district installed its diversion dam on the Sacramento River at Lake Redding Park like it does every April with high hopes of an abundant water supply due to a wet winter. But this time, unbeknownst fissures raised alarms.

Users say the canal always leaks a little bit, but this year was a gusher. ACID officials discovered the canal was riddled with cracks when the mostly clay soil didn’t seal when the water began flowing after the dry summer. Rodent holes and stump openings likely contributed to the canal’s troubles as well, officials have said.

Water recedes in the ACID canal at the South Street bridge in Redding on Oct. 30, 2023. ACID board President Dan Woolery said the district usually treats the canal twice a year for irrigation weeds, but this year only treated it once due to extensive leaks downstream. Photo by Mike Chapman.

General manager Dahl didn’t want to be interviewed by A News Café in the days leading up to his Montana hunting trip this month. Board member Rickert also declined to be interviewed. However, board President Dan Woolery provided A News Café with an ACID update following the board’s special Nov. 1 meeting.

“We’ve never had as much high groundwater impact as we had this year. Wow,” Woolery said. “And this is the first time ever that the canal has ever gone a full summer without water. The engineering theory is that it killed a lot of trees, and roots died on the banks.”

Off-season work

The board approved spending $3.2 million in a contract with Steve Manning Construction to line three sections of the canal to plug leaks. The areas comprise Verde Vale, that includes Jacqueline and Hill streets, Fair Oaks Drive behind the fairgrounds, and along Bruce Street.

“It’s been a long time coming with a lot of study and I guess you would say a lot of working out details,” Woolery said.

Shotcrete, a type of concrete mixture, will be shot through a hose onto the canal bank and base for a total of 3,300 linear feet. The engineering firm of Provost and Pritchard was hired for an additional $267,000, Woolery said.

The money is coming from last year’s water sales plus $3 million the Bureau of Reclamation provided to water contractors during the drought.

Woolery said design work is nearly done but surveying and permits still are needed.

“We’re in pretty good shape there. That project has to be done by the time water is running in the canal by April 15,” Woolery said.

Workers will use heavy equipment to shape the canal and make it firm before putting down a liner and spraying it with fiber-reinforced Shotcrete.

“It’s quite a project. For the Bureau of Reclamation, this is their number one recommended method of lining canals,” Woolery said.

The Anderson-Cottonwood Irrigation District relies on its seasonal dam on the Sacramento River in Redding to divert water into its 35-mile canal. Photo by Mike Chapman.

The idea is not only to protect neighborhoods from water damage, but to conserve water along the 35-mile canal and its lateral offshoots.

“You know the canal is above the roof of the houses, so you really have to line the entire canal, the bottom and everything, to stop the water from escaping,” Woolery said. “These are the three areas where we really feel that we can help.”

Plugging the holes

At its Nov. 9 meeting, the board discussed bids for other work on Della Lane on the main canal and Trefoil and Spoon lanes.

Anderson-Cottonwood Irrigation District directors Dan Woolery, left, and James Rickert attend a regular board meeting Nov. 9, 2023, where fixes for the canal were discussed. Photo by Mike Chapman.

“My recommendation for Delta Lane bottom line is to get those trees out of there at a minimum. Get the trees out and recompact the canal base in those specific areas and that’s going to help tremendously,” operations manager Ben Duncan said.

Shady Lane is another possible candidate for a concrete liner. Duncan said canal water had leaked across and down the street. He said 2-inch pumps were running all night to keep water on ACID’s side of the street so it didn’t flood across-the-street neighbors.

“Something has to happen on Shady Lane,” Duncan said.

Woolery agreed, saying: “We’ve got to start plugging these holes somewhere.”

Open meeting warning

The audience was in the dark when Duncan presented board members with various quotes for work proposals. Audience member Steve Barr cautioned the directors about being straightforward about costs with the public.

“You’re throwing numbers around and we don’t even know what you’re talking about,” said Barr, a resident on Shady Lane.

He said the audience didn’t have copies of the bids that the board had under discussion on Nov. 9 and warned of an open-meeting violation.

“Just for the future, I hope we can start giving the public the information,” Barr told the board. “It’s the law, folks. The Brown Act violation tonight – you receiving the information, the public not getting it – it’s a violation. If you’ve had Brown Act training, you know that’s true. You cannot review the information without it being available tonight for the public.”

The board decided to ask staff to return at the next meeting to refine the projects and make recommendations, including for Lady Smith Avenue and North Bonnyview Road.

“There’s so much to do and not enough money,” Duncan told the board.

Whistleblower chimes in

Woolery said the upcoming work to line parts of the canal is money better spent compared to an emergency well project that gained steam in June.

“We wanted to help however we could and the board unanimously approved this effort to help impacted residences immediately,” Rickert posted on Facebook at the time.

The idea was to drill a well where the ground was saturated and have the excess water pumped upward and back into the canal.

Rickert said someone contacted the Shasta County Environmental Health Division and the State Water Resources Control Board the next day, throwing a wrench into the project.

“This immediately wrapped us up in red tape and made the project much more difficult, much more expensive and had a much longer timeline,” Rickert wrote.

More is coming out about the initial $5,000 dewatering well in the Verde Vale neighborhood, with Woolery saying: “We were trying to dig – we didn’t know for sure – three to five wells along the base of the canal and just get some water away from that subdivision.

“Then we ran into needing to get permits from the county as well as the State Water Quality Control Board. We pursued that before we ever dug a shovel full of dirt or anything,” Woolery said.

Walking the canal, he said officials realized that project would be too expensive and money would be better spent on long-term solutions such as the upcoming lining work.

‘Lot of work to do’

Woolery points out the Verde Vale neighborhood is going to have future problems no matter what. He said homes there were built on an old streambed and says Shasta County has allowed drainages to become clogged and fill in over the years.

He said the drainage ditches aren’t working as they were originally designed more than 60 years ago. “Everyone’s filled in the drain ditches and stuff for their yards. … When you build on a creek bed, the water’s still going to flow underground,” Woolery said.

No wonder the area is called Verde Vale, which basically translates into green valley.

“The way I look at it is, you do the best you can, you make the best decision, and sometimes you run into a roadblock and then it leads to something like this, which is actually a better decision,” Woolery said about the dewatering well idea. “Whereas what we’re spending now is going to have a 50-year-life. So that’s great.”

The ACID board has called on a group of public volunteers to form a strategic plan committee that will look at future solutions with the district.

Appointed to the panel at the Nov. 9 board meeting were retired farm advisor Larry Forero, Mike Berry, Jennifer Brackett, Ivar Amen and tentatively, Laurrie Shaw.

Rickert said at that meeting the board will evaluate the fixes, including canal lining and proposals to compact the canal, lay down other liners and install pipe, and see what works best.

“We all know it’s going to cost money and it’s going to have to be taken care of,” Rickert said. “We have a lot of work to do.”

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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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