Members of the Madera City Council listened intently Wednesday night as Public Works Director David Randall declared Madera’s only sewer plant could be on the verge of a serious malfunction.
Built in 1970, the plant is located on Avenue 13 in the southwest quadrant of the city and has a capacity of 10 million gallons a day, but currently processes approximately 5 to 6 million gallons, according to 2016 reports.
Randall said the aging sewer plant was currently operating with only three of six massive gearboxes used in the pumping and aeration of the wastewater.
“Two of those (remaining gearboxes) may now be on the verge of failing,” Randall said, referring to a recent gear oil analysis by plant staff members. Previous observations of the gears vibrating were made, and small metal fragments were reportedly found inside the gear casings.
Should those gears seize up or break, the plant would be unable to process effluent, putting the city in violation of state law, and the plant at risk for shutting down, Randall said, and the only short term option would be to pump the daily waste temporarily into a holding basin, an emergency measure and major threat to public health no one wanted to contemplate.
A discussion of the gearboxes and the need to replace them quickly arose when the council was asked to approve an emergency purchase of two rebuilt gearboxes, “which must be purchased and installed in an expedited manner.”
Mayor Pro Tem Cece Foley Gallegos said she had recently spent several hours visiting the sewer plant, and she felt an emergency purchase could have been avoided had officials been more observant in how the aging of the gearboxes was monitored.
She voted against the request, suggesting that two new gearboxes and one rebuilt one be purchased.
However, the council voted to approve the emergency request as written.
Randall said he wasn’t sure how the monitoring of the gearboxes had become a problem, especially with two rebuilt gearboxes already on hand — but those are apparently unworkable.
The gearboxes are rebuilt or made to order by a limited number of suppliers and take significant time to obtain, he said. The replacement cost is approximately $166,000, including installation, according to Randall.
David Merchen, director of Madera Community Development, added “Make no mistake, we are at a bad place and are not exactly sure how it happened. We are scratching and clawing for solutions before it fails completely on us.”
The City Council discussed the situation at length, and voted 5-to-2 in favor of the sewer plant’s request.