RRWPC Newsletter, Sept.2021: Drought & Plans for new septic regulations

Wait and See…..Since early this year, as the reservoirs declined and the rain failed to fall, Sonoma County water purveyors suffered a severe case of ‘wait and see’.  Early on, it was ‘wait and see’ if the rain comes and the reservoirs fill, even when limited falling rain was greedily absorbed by vegetation and thirsty soil before reaching the creeks. Then it was ‘wait and see’ how much water was being conserved; as time sped by and reservoirs dropped quickly.  Even then, in June and July, no one seemed ready to panic.  Lowering minimum flows to 35 cfs was also thought to save the day, but that didn’t make much difference in reservoir levels either.

In late April, 2021, our governor had politely requested that people conserve water by decreasing use by 15%.  Some cities followed suit and asked people to voluntarily save an even greater 20%, and in a few cases, as much as 40%.  There were some letters to the Press Democrat asking how they can save more when they had never stopped conserving after the 2014-2015 drought?  Other letters asked why building permits were still being written and approved?  Officials responded that the State was demanding new housing and economic growth to keep up with demand. (Strange, I seem to recall articles about California losing population and a legislative seat because of that loss.)

During this time, water sales by the Sonoma County Water Agency to nine contractors increased by 9% even while Census data reported only a 1% population increase for our area.  (Water Agency claimed a 24% decrease in their diversions but a similar decrease in water sales to contractors wasn’t evident in contractor water purchase data.) Many water users didn’t appear to be responding to the seriousness of the situation (evidenced by greatly decreased reservoir levels) and government often has not adequately, in our view, conveyed the threat.  The goal for October 1,  2021, was to measure 20,000 acre-feet of water in Lake Mendocino.  The 45% drop in water level since last April, was reached by the end of August.  (On April 21st  Lake Mendocino was at 36,805 acre feet (AF) and diminished to 20,165 AF by August 26th. )  Would goals have been met if water use savings had been mandatory, penalties imposed, and aspirations higher?  Some cities mentioned penalties, but left a door wide open on whether or not they would be imposed.

Minimal reservoir levels reserved for fish and health and safety supplies….The 20,000 AF that now remains, is intended not only for health and safety water use (drinking, bathing, etc.), but also to provide enough water for threatened fish species and aquatic life.  It was intended to water riparian vegetation and trees, so they won’t die off and create problems for water quality.  Also, another dry winter this year would leave little for next year’s water demand.    Between April 21, 2021 and August 26th, SCWA contractors alone used 16,640 AF of water, (multiply by 325,851 to get number of gallons) not counting total agriculture use, which is much harder to measure.  While the Water Agency and the contractors, the Governor, the State Water Board, many agricultural water users, and the Supervisors, may have done their best to address the problem, they didn’t do enough and they didn’t do it fast enough.  They implemented a ‘wait and see’ policy for far too long, and now it’s up to them to fix the problem.

Lake Mendocino’s limited capacity is causing water supply problems for towns and properties along the upper Russian River, including much of Mendocino County, and down through Healdsburg.  The Dry Creek confluence is a short distance downstream from there and is the beneficiary of Lake Sonoma supplies, which are now approaching half empty.  The Water Agency is holding tight with that water due to concern for their contractors who may be needing that water next year. The staff of the State Water Board has expressed concern for the lower river, and is hopeful that their widespread demand for water rights curtailments will leave adequate flow in the lower river to keep us going through next summer, if necessary. Once again, this is all a ‘wait and see’ proposition.  You can see that water issues are highly complex.

Another complex issue….There is another critical issue heating up these days that is focused on changing State septic system requirements and management in order to comply with new pathogenic pollution rules. (Discharge of any fecal waste is/will be prohibited.)  As mentioned in earlier letters, the County set up a nine member Citizens Advisory Group (CAG) of which I represent RRWPC. There is also a technical group of individuals representing the involved agencies.  Most of the CAG members come from Monte Rio and Villa Grande.  The group has been meeting for three years and has given input on potential pilot projects for dealing with the implementation of these new septic standards.  Part of the complexity involves a multitude of agencies needing to accomplish specific goals, without stepping on each other’s toes. We anticipate that the CAG will have ability to support citizen views on the implementation of new regulations.  To avoid a lot of confusion, there will be public meetings further down the road when program details have been ironed out.

The North Coast Regional Water Board (RB1) is the regional agency for protecting water quality and for processing new septic regulations to meet current laws.  Their work is overseen and reviewed by the State Water Resources Control Board who, in turn is overseen by the EPA, and whose work is approved for its legality by the Office of Administrative Law.   In August, 2019, the Regional Board adopted new rules based on extensive evidence gathered regarding amounts of pathogens in the various parts of the river and estimates for where the contributions were coming from. (i.e., septic systems, homeless encampments, agriculture,  recreational activities, etc.) and how the various inputs need to be addressed.  The main focus has been on septic systems however.

After that approval, the State Board approved new standards that needed to be further incorporated into the Regional Board document.  At the same time, the County of Sonoma was finalizing the new OWTS manual for the County, with a special section for properties in close proximity to Russian River banks.  RB1 is now about to begin a hearing process where they consider approval of the revisions of the rewrite (which should happen this December) and the public will also have another opportunity to comment.  After that, the State version goes to the EPA and AOL for approval.  These latter do not require a public review process.

In the meantime, the OWTS Manual keeps getting revised and delayed.  That document has a special section with new septic system rules for properties in close proximity to Russian River banks.  Since the river has been declared impaired for bacteria through the Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) process, new requirements for septic placement and management will be required.  The OWTS Manual will spell out the details on how to do that.  (If you find all this confusing, you aren’t alone.  If you have questions, we will try to address them.)

Supervisors need to approve the OWTS Manual, the Regional Board needs to approve it also to see if it follows all required guidelines.  When all this is complete, letters will later go out to Monte Rio and Villa Grande property owners who have not applied for a septic permit in many years.  The Regional Board and County Permit Department will work together reviewing septic systems in the area with initial emphasis on pit toilets and other old systems that will have top priority.  None of that is likely to happen before next summer however.  Ultimately this will be a 15-20 year program to convert everyone to the new standards.

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