Letter to State Board: Recycled Water Policy, 10-26-07

Oct. 26, 2007

Tam Doduc, Chair and Members
State Water Resources Control Board
1001 I Street
Sacramento, CA 95814

VIA EMAIL: commentletters@waterboards.ca.gov

Re: Comments on Development State Water Recycling Policy

Dear Chair and State Board Members:
Russian River Watershed Protection Committee (RRWPC) is pleased to submit this comment letter on the State Water Resource Control Board’s Water Recycling Policy. RRWPC has been in existence since 1980, representing water quality concerns of many property owners in the lower Russian River (Healdsburg to Jenner). We have focused on Sonoma County water and wastewater issues for all of that time. We are a small volunteer organization with approximately 1500 supporters that closely tracks and provides testimony and commentaries on environmental issues that affect our local watershed. We have provided our views to your Board on numerous occasions, most recently on the Russian River “low flow” issue.
RRWPC Supports Letter from Keeper Alliance…
RRWPC has always supported agricultural irrigation with wastewater. We believe that applying treated wastewater to the land generally is a far safer practice than discharging it directly into waterways, provided that the application is not excessive for local conditions. We recently came across the March 20, 2007 letter to your Board from Linda Sheehan of California Coastkeeper Alliance, Tracy Egoscue of Santa Monica Baykeeper, and Layne Friedrich and Drevet Hunt of Lawyers for Clean Water, Inc. Their letter thoroughly and meaningfully delineates most of our major concerns about the problem of incidental irrigation runoff from a legal perspective and has our strong endorsement.
In effect the letter challenges this water recycling policy in regards to its ability to distribute and utilize recycled water in a manner that abides by anti-degradation laws. As you are aware, there is an inherent conflict between the laws governing NPDES discharges of wastewater to rivers and streams and those for land based irrigation, with runoff providing the negative linkage. In its focused drive to offset potable water supplies with wastewater reuse, this proposed recycling policy really evades the issue of water quality protection. The above-mentioned letter delineates the legal ramifications of the program in relation to the Clean Water Act.
It is of great concern to us that, in its effort to standardize its policies, the State will promote a homogenous approach to dealing with water quantity and quality issues. I’m sure this is always a dilemma for your Board. How to deal with all the variables and values around water while achieving consistency in your policies that govern activities related to water supply and wastewater disposal. What a daunting task, since in each case there are special circumstances that require differing approaches.
State Lead Needed for Watershed Protection….
There are many people in our area who deeply value sound water and wastewater policies and are willing to take time out of their busy lives to fight for them. There are other people who focus more on fiscal implications of resource protection and insist on retaining their rights to do whatever they please with their property. Some people simply do not have a sense of how their actions affect the greater whole and how watersheds are interconnected. What is done on one piece of land and in one watershed, affects the greater whole.
There is another group who claim to support environmental protections but don’t want to be forced to protect riparian habitat, essential for maintaining good water quality as well as ecosystem integrity. In many cases it is a matter of educating people to the importance of following sound environmental practices. We rely on the State to provide that overview and plan wisely, not only for the present, but the future as well.
All of these issues need to be balanced so as to preserve watershed ecosystems. Often, if not usually, the homogenized approach of statewide policy simply does not work in all environments. We urge you to prioritize the values so many in our state share, clean, healthy, and sustainable water supplies. Sometimes these values cannot be negotiated if resource protection is to be achieved and it often requires hard and occasionally unpopular choices on the part of the decision makers.
Signs of Degraded Watersheds…
We are seeing evidence on a daily basis that things are not going well. Species are disappearing rapidly, waterways much more degraded than even 30 years ago, frogs and other species are being born with deformed bodies and hermaphrodite reproductive systems. Pharmaceuticals and chemicals are showing up in tests of our rivers and streams. Sediment and nutrient problems are contributing to the proliferation of invasive species and loss of habitat for aquatic life. There may be much more going on that we haven’t even noticed yet and more must be done to address these issues. Encouraging wastewater reuse everywhere is a truly scary proposition and should only be done with great care. As yet, we are not sure these things are being taken seriously in the rush to solve the water crisis as much is being overlooked.
Public Often Mislead on Wastewater Safety….
We often hear service providers use a sanitized terminology geared to persuade the public that what is not acceptable under the Clean Water Act, the California Toxics Rule and Porter-Cologne is acceptable in this circumstance because it meets Department of Health Title 22 standards for recycled water. Over and over again we hear how Santa Rosa’s wastewater is “almost drinkable”, and it meets “drinking water standards”. These are all misleading, since they fail to address the environmental impacts to our creeks and streams and the creatures that reside there, held hostage by our usually inadequate care of their environment. Title 22 is not even protective of human health, since it does a very poor job of addressing a whole range of toxins and their impacts on chronic human diseases.
This also fails to address the issue that wastewater may not meet all of the standards all of the time. There are so many variables in the monitoring and testing of wastewater and so many opportunities for human error, that it is giving a false sense of security to convey the idea that wastewater meets all of the standards all of the time, even with the best managed systems. If a problem is not grossly polluting, or a gross violation of a specific standard, then it is sometimes and perhaps often overlooked. These systems are self monitored, and while the Regional Boards do an outstanding job of monitoring these systems with the resources available to them, they are somewhat constrained in their oversight because of it.
When runoff occurs, as mentioned in the letter referred to above, it is, in effect, a discharge to the waters of the State and needs to abide by the above-mentioned laws. There needs to be full consideration of the impacts to, not only public health, but also aquatic health and water quality. Calling it “recycled water” does NOT mean it is free of toxins as implied!
Public Health regulations don’t address all the emerging and unregulated chemicals being found in wastewater these days. There are pharmaceuticals, personal care products, steroids and caffeine, pesticides, pthalates, and many more, that are now being found to cause devastating harm to humans and aquatic life. More information comes out every day and our files are burgeoning with recent studies establishing the seriousness of this issue. (Our plan was to email this letter to you, but also attach copies of a few articles/studies to a hard copy, which we would mail over the weekend. We hope that you can consider these and we apologize for not getting them to you sooner.)
Europe is so far ahead of us on this issue. Many substances banned in Europe are still allowed in our county. Countries there are adopting the Precautionary Principle, which requires that products be viewed as harmful until they can be proven safe, instead of the other way around as promoted in our country. We hear decision makers complain that they have to spend great sums of money on considering the impacts on lowly creatures, whose hormonal systems are disrupted by minute amounts of a chemical or a combination of chemicals. (No one has any idea what effects the soup of chemicals in wastewater have on human health and the environment.)
Yet there is more and more evidence that those chemicals are making their way into humans as well, either through the food chain or through direct exposure in the water and air, sometimes miles from the original entry point (Endocrine disruptors have been found in isolated wilderness areas in the Arctic.) These chemicals are believed to cause cancer in many instances, a disease whose inception and cause is almost impossible to trace.
Santa Rosa Demands Incidental Runoff….
We are seeing this issue played out in Sonoma County. The City of Santa Rosa currently has a permit allowing them to discharge their wastewater into the Russian River between October 1st and May 15th of each year. Because of the high recreational use of the river, there has been a summer discharge prohibition in effect since the 1970’s. The North Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board (RP1) is now considering a Basin Plan Amendment that would allow incidental and low threat discharges during the summer time. This, in effect, would eliminate the summer discharge prohibition.
In light of the move to lower summer flows in our river, any discharge, even minimal ones, would have a far more devastating impact if stream flows cannot assimilate either the wastewater runoff, or the chemicals, nutrients, and soil amendments that come with it. Toxins become concentrated when less water is available to dilute it. (It is also my understanding that pathogens attach to sediments and can be reintroduced to the water way when disturbed by human activity.) If you combine this with extensive human recreational use in the summertime and the proliferation of invasive species in nutrient rich waters, you may have a human health problem of enormous consequences, not to mention the drastic environmental consequences that can result as well.
Regional Board’s Resolution Supports Incidental Runoff….
Recently, the City of Santa Rosa persuaded RB1 to pass a Resolution indicating support for the concept of “incidental runoff” even before the Basin Plan Amendment was processed and approved (As yet, no staff report has even been released.). They have stated that they absolutely cannot run an urban irrigation program without legalizing runoff. It is hard to believe that the State would even consider an irrigation policy utilizing treated wastewater and put off addressing this issue, which is the crux of the negative impacts that can result from this policy.
The Regional Board’s resolution had as its purpose to assure Santa Rosa that they can move forward with their proposed urban irrigation plan, which they claim cannot be constructed without permitted runoff. In reality, Santa Rosa was looking for assurance that they could move forward with their expensive project and not worry about third party lawsuits. The ONLY way that their concern could be assuaged, would be to permit incidental runoff and in effect eliminate the summer discharge prohibition and similarly eliminate the fear of citizen lawsuits that might result from careless irrigation practices. The Board passed the resolution on Sept. 13, 2007, with an amendment noting that the resolution should not be construed to eliminate the summer discharge prohibition. While this is reassuring, it may be contradictory.
(Note: The Resolution was Item #5 on the Regional Board’s Sept. 13, 2007 Agenda. There is an audio of the item on their website. I have been unable to get the final amended Resolution either on their website or from staff. There was an amendment to the original proposed resolution, stating that the Board does not intend for the Resolution to eliminate the summer discharge prohibition. Resolution and amendment were passed unanimously. I will mail a copy of the original Resolution with a hard copy of this letter.)
What is particularly disconcerting is that, while support for incidental runoff was declared, no one attempted to define what that was. Staff assured the Board that it would be addressed during the Basin Plan Amendment process. If this is the case, than support for even the concept is entirely premature. We question the whole status and meaning of this resolution.
Prior Irrigation Practices and Laguna Impairment….
The City of Santa Rosa has been operating an agricultural irrigation program in the Laguna de Santa Rosa for at least 30 years. When their program irrigated 5000 to 6000 acres only a few years ago, it may have been the largest in the state. Some of the farmers are now switching to grape production and no longer need as much water as they did for hay and other crops. Also, the City has been sending 11 million gallons a day (mgd) to the Geyser’s steam fields for the last 3 years and recently signed a contract increasing that to 19 mgd. This means that far less water has been available for irrigation in the summer time.
For all those years, Santa Rosa has been allowed to discharge into the Laguna every winter at 5% of the flows in the Russian River, at a point at least 12 miles downstream (Hacienda Bridge). This resulted in Laguna discharges as great as 80% of the stream flow. Along with urban runoff from Rohnert Park and Cotati, irrigation runoff and dairy waste, the Laguna was turned into what looked like a cesspool every summer. The nutrients accumulated in the sediments, which grew deeper and deeper downstream, providing outstanding habitat for invasive plant species and many non-native warm water fish.
There have been severe consequences from the years of irrigation and discharge. The Laguna is currently listed as impaired for six constituents, including nitrogen, phosphorus, dissolved oxygen, temperature, sediments, and mercury. There is also a massive Ludwigia growth that has choked the Laguna in numerous places. Hundreds of pounds of herbicides have been applied to deal with this burgeoning problem. Few doubt that Santa Rosa’s discharges have strongly contributed to this situation. Studies have documented the high nutrient loads in their wastewater and their current NPDES permit demands “no net increase” in loadings. The TMDL has not been conducted yet. Yet if incidental runoff is allowed, it’s hard to imagine how this will be addressed.
Santa Rosa’s Annual Reports document numerous irrigation overflow incidents every year since the reports began. One particular farmer is named every year, yet his irrigation wastewater supply has never been cut off. In all that time, only one citizen’s lawsuit was brought under the Clean Water Act and the City settled it rather than fight all the way. For years, Santa Rosa paid as much as $350,000 or more a year to farmers to irrigate their lands. There was a high incentive to over-irrigate. To their credit, the city is moving away from this practice and shifting to the other direction, charging almost the same as for potable water in an urban setting. Developers are being told they have to agree to the urban irrigation project if they want to get the necessary permits to build their developments.
According to Santa Rosa’s Creek Master Plan, there are 90 miles of creeks throughout the City of about 160,000 people. Several major creeks that link up to the Laguna go through the area of proposed new development where plans are being made to implement an urban project, intended to offset water supplies that are needed to serve the new growth. It is being assumed that the value of the wastewater is 95% that of potable water and that people will have no choice of whether to hook up once service becomes available. In light of the changing housing picture, this may be a hard sell. We will wait and see.
RRWPC could have provided a lot more details about our concerns, but we have run out of time and have to send this letter off now. We believe we have provided a picture of our genuine concerns and hope that the proposed policy will be able to more fully address these critical issues. We know that the State’s failing infrastructure and the fear of global warming are contributing to the sense of urgency about this issue, but we plead with you to proceed with care and not overlook the potential for great water quality impacts.
It is so very strange that the very same wastewater, regulated by the California Toxics Rule, the Clean Water Act, and Porter-Cologne, when discharging directly to rivers and streams, has suddenly become “recycled WATER” and only needs to meet weak Title 22 standards to be considered clean enough to allow “incidental” discharges. This question has a lot of regulatory history, including extensive scientific study, behind it and needs to be addressed.
Brenda Adelman for Russian River Watershed Protection Committee
P.O. Box 501
Guerneville, CA 95446
(707) 869-0410 (phone and fax)

PS: I would greatly appreciate some brief acknowledgment that you have received this letter.

CC: Senators Mike Thompson and Pat Wiggins
Assemblypersons: Jared Huffman, Noreen Evans, Patty Berg
North Coast Regional Board