RRWPC Newsletter, April 2023: Sewage Spills and RRCSD Repairs

RRCSD illegally discharged millions of gallons of raw sewage over 17 years….Russian River County Sanitation District (RRCSD) illegally spilled almost 1.5 million gallons of raw or partially treated sewage into the Russian River during big storms taking place between 2007 and July, 2017. This is five times more than all other dischargers combined, including Santa Rosa and the Subregional system (Rohnert Park, Cotati, and Sebastopol).  Then in late 2017, and February and March, 2019, sanitary sewer overflows caused another 2.3 million gallons to be spilled.  This sewage is loaded with viral and bacterial pathogens and unidentified toxins (including pharmaceuticals) and was initially discharged into a residential neighborhood and a children’s park.  The District’s discharge permit specifically prohibits all releases of untreated or partially treated wastes.

This information was obtained from the Regional Board’s Action Plan for Russian River Watershed Pathogen Total Maximum Daily which identifies the various contributors to bacterial pollution in the Russian River.  In order to remove alleged bacterial problems during summer recreation, the state agency may force areas currently reliant on septic systems to hook up to RRCSD without definitive proof that those septic systems are polluting the river with E coli exceedances (the State standard). In the meantime, bacterial contributions resulting from system spills during major floods may increase.

Major floods and raw sewage spills seem to go together….RRCSD went on line forty years ago in 1983, and every time a major flood over 40’ occurred since then, there was a spill of sewage into the river and the community.  RRCSD is the most polluting wastewater treatment system on the Russian River; regulators have known it for years, and, to address all needed repairs can ultimately cost as much as $50 million dollars, obviously not an amount the community can afford. The system was never built to withstand the giant floods that occur sporadically, but regularly, into the river, even though the law requires it.  Now we have an aging collection system dependent on deteriorating pump station components, needing to move the waste from homes to treatment facility, and new problems exacerbate the process with each new flood event.  Penalties can cost $10 a gallon, although often a project that benefits the system can be approved by regulators in exchange for a partial forgiveness of the monetary fine. In turn, these fines then end up justifying a rate increase for property owners in the subsequent year.

RRCSD has dire need for major repairs…..The Board of Supervisor’s Summary Report of two emergency situations in late 2021 indicates the gravity of the problem and states, “The Guerneville Lift Station and Orchard Avenue Force Main failures are a result of severely corroded iron/steel pipelines….As a result of the incidents, dangerous conditions have arisen at the Guerneville Lift Station and in the force main along Orchard Avenue….The incidents were sudden and unexpected, and pose a clear and imminent danger requiring immediate action to prevent or mitigate the loss or impairment of life, health, property, or essential public services.”  If not repaired, we can lose our sewer services and maybe more over this.

And also, “Upon investigations by staff, it was determined that complete failure of the pipelines was highly possible. If the pipelines were to fail, it could cause major erosion, flooding, and contamination along River Road and Orchard Avenue with raw wastewater, thereby posing a significant danger to residents, motorists, and the environment.”  (And local businesses also.)

In the Russian River County Sanitation District’s Sanitary Sewer Management Plan for 2021, it states that evaluation should include, “Actions needed to evaluate those portions of the sanitary sewer system that are experiencing or contributing to an SSO discharge caused by hydraulic deficiency.”  We believe that the Water Agency knew about the deficiencies since they took over in 1995, when two giant floods occurred.  Similar problems occurred in 1997, 2006, 2014, 2017, and 2019.

Yet there have also been many improvements at the treatment plant using funds that resulted from penalties assigned for spill violations.  We don’t fault workers at the plant as they have done their best under difficult circumstance, except perhaps there should be more staff during emergency circumstances.  The problem lies with the aging collection system and surging manholes resulting from aging pipes and infrastructure, and with original faulty designs possibly contributing as well.  County officials need to work harder to obtain grant funds from governmental resources.  It seems they kept pushing the problem down the road.

SCWA has been told that there may be a $2.3 million dollar fine for the 2019 spill.  They have been negotiating in secret since a letter came out in April, 2021, describing violations that occurred four years ago.  In June, 2019 RRWPC filed a complaint with another local citizen and we have heard nothing else since they are working things out behind closed doors.  When those doors will open, we have no clue.  Even planners at the North Coast Board supposedly do not know what is going on.

Some improvements have been assessed and funding (loans) are being arranged….Nevertheless, some actions have been taken.   The work needing to be done is on the headworks, the 11 lift stations, and two of the three miles of force main. Extensive assessments have been conducted for the lift stations and headworks.  Part of the assessment has prioritized repair needs so that the work can be phased in along with costs. (Asset degradation and useful life analysis were determined.) West Yost (consultant) prioritized their recommendations on the basis of severity, short term need for repair within next five years, and long term beyond the next five years (latter put on wait list).

According to the West Yost Condition Assessment, critical short term needs of the system will cost about $8,212,000.  Non-critical short term needs will cost about $9,698,000 and long term needs, $2,901,000.  (Total: almost $21M) This is for headworks and lift stations only and does not include pipeline. (We do know there has already been some emergency repairs on about 800’ of pipeline between Vacation Beach and the Treatment Plant at the end of Neeley Rd.  We believe about $2M has been spent on that pipeline repair.)  We don’t know about other force main costs although we think that the line under the river may need to be replaced and that could be very expensive.

Governmental grant funds are critically needed….So how much should ratepayer pay for all this? Every single year from going on line until last year, ratepayers have seen increases of 4% to 6%.  This year and last, the rate has shot up to almost 9%.  Even this big hike will not pay a significant amount of the expenditures needed for the work; there must be a large contribution from governmental sources in the form of grants, not loans.  The Water Agency (managers of system) seem to have made good faith efforts to obtain funding for several prior projects.  It is essential that they obtain government funding for most of this work.  Water Agency is telling people that costs will be less both for ratepayers and for citizens in Monte Rio and Villa Grande if they relinquish their septic systems and hook up to RRCSD.  We don’t buy it and people should be wary.  Although the analysis has not been done yet on what alterations and expansions would be needed to accommodate about 1500 more hookups, we know summer irrigation and storage facilities would need expansion and other components will also need to be increased in order for the system to function properly under all scenarios. This work should all be completed BEFORE any new hookups occur.  A future letter will give more details on that part of the situation.

Recently those of you who are ratepayers in the district received the annual report. The first page indicates the bright side of their recent accomplishments and future plans.  They say that  “Approximately two miles of force mains may need replacement”.  What they don’t tell you is that if they aren’t replaced, they will need to undergo major repairs.  We are certain that it includes work on the section that goes under the river and will probably be very expensive either way.

District property owners have the opportunity to vote against this current rate hike with one vote FOR EACH PROPERTY YOU OWN.  If you own three properties, you get three votes, etc.  There is a vote form in the mailing and you must return it to Water Agency by May 6, 2023.  While we don’t think we will kill the raise, and while the District really needs our money now, we want the Agency to know people are watching them and are upset with the high raises.  If enough people send form in, they may not raise it quite so much next year.  If you lost your form, you can get one on their website at www.sonomawater.org    Search for Prop 218 Form (You also need to report each parcel number.)

Also, we have posted a lengthy version of this letter on our website on our Home Page side bar. See RRCSD’s History of Sewage spills: 1985 – 2021, March 21, 2023.

RRWPC needs your continued support!   RRWPC needs your continued support to sustain our river protection work. For those who have not donated recently, we appreciate any donation so that we know you remain interested in hearing from us.  RRWPC relies exclusively on six (or fewer) mailers a year for our entire fiscal support.  You may contribute via check by mail or PayPal at our website.  We have some urgent needs now, so we appreciate any amount you can donate at this time. Thank you for your loyal support.   Brenda