RRWPC Newsletter, February 24: Wastewater…Behind the Scenes

Partial truths equal mistruths as the public is misled and thereby uninformed….Over many years, RRWPC has followed the evolution of numerous  Russian River Area programs as they evolved from behind the scenes.  The public is generally kept unaware of program details until project plans are almost complete, with only a select few allowed advanced peeks at what is planned. 

In order to persuade others to support a new program, bits of information that are partially true, but fail to convey the full intention of the plan, are sometimes provided, albeit with embarrassing details conveniently removed.

A perfect example is a statement in the staff presentation to the North Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board (Regional Board) on December 13th, 2023: “RRCSD and Sonoma Water have a solid history of advancing and implementing beneficial projects within the region.” This statement is really commending the agencies for a history of good management and claiming a great track record for creating, advancing, and implementing area projects.   RRCSD is the wastewater treatment plant for Guerneville area whose interest goes no further than it’s specifically defined boundary.  Sonoma Water is the operator and the Board of Supervisors are the Board of Directors for Russian River County Sanitation District (RRCSD).  Here are some facts that have been left out:

  • Sonoma Water (SW) had nothing to do with RRCSD until 1995 when the Supervisors reorganized County departments and forced SW to take over management of a system that from the beginning of planning, construction, and operation, was a source of great problems and spills. (System went on line in 1983 and County Public Works initiated, built, and operated it until that time. The Water Agency didn’t want it and tried to get out of managing it, but were made to take it on.)
  • RRCSD and Occidental were the only two County run treatment systems in the area and Occidental was the only County run system even worse than RRCSD. Both had the highest fee rates in County.
  • According to a study by West, Yost, and Associates, the pump stations and about half of the force mains need about $47 million in upgrades and repairs. This is not mentioned in staff presentation.
  • They also don’t mention that most significant improvements to the RRCSD such as the disinfection system occurred as result of penalties for spills that they were responsible for preventing & didn’t.
  • Finally, the significant spill of raw and partially treated sewage of over a million gallons in February, 2019, was assigned a penalty of a little over $1M when it could have been over $9M based on Water Agency’s many management failures before and during spill, but recent new State requirements prohibited penalty from being used to repair our system.
  • Finally, even though there was a witness who lived nearby the surging manhole, and reported seeing it overflow the day before the flood began, because she didn’t get a picture, the staff took two days off the amount of time they estimated for the spill amount.  The actual spill was probably much greater than what was estimated and reported.
  • RRWPC has written a history of spills at RRCSD from 1985 to 2017 that appears on our website (with numerous other papers on the topic of RRCSD) at the top of our sidebar on our website. (rrwpc.org)

So the mistruth lies in what has not been said, but of course, I informed the board of these other facts at the meeting, although it accomplished little.  The Board expressed interest in trying to change the new law and strongly supported using ratepayer penalty funds towards fixing the system, but nevertheless, funds are instead going towards a planning effort to assess public opinion on possibly building miles of pipeline through several West County towns such as: Monte Rio, Villa Grande, Occidental, Graton, then join to Sebastopol’s pipeline and send all off to Santa Rosa for treatment and possible irrigation.

It has been RRWPC’s goal to inform you of apparent inconsistencies of both current projects and those to come. We want you to know the true, full picture where possible, and help provide opportunities for you to weigh in before plans get locked in cement.  Our periodic letters and emails discuss important projects affecting the lower Russian River and, for those residing in our local communities, attempt to keep you informed of the various regulatory and other actions being proposed.  Project goals are often revealed in unwieldly documents containing nuts and bolts of proposals, but are seldom read by the public.  We try to cull main ideas from these and pass on essential plans to you, especially the parts that are unlikely to work.

Some other programs RRWPC regularly covers….The following are projects we continue to track.

  • We have followed the Regional Board’s Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) Program for over fifteen years, including new rules to contain and control pathogens from reaching the river from various sources and potentially exposing vacationers to illness. The local Regional Board has approved this project but the State and EPA have yet to do so.  This is closely related to the OWTS regulations being worked on now and the situation with RRCSD that could receive Monte Rio’s and Villa Grande’s waste in the future.
  • We have also tracked the Biological Opinion and National Marine Fishery Service’s demand for much lower summer flows that is now up for review without public involvement. Low flow is probably here to stay.  In 2017 we submitted many comments on the Environmental Impact Report and generated about 800 letters from the public. (To those who assisted, we are forever grateful!)  Water Agency staff never responded to comments.  Now they are saying they may wait until Potter Valley Project issue is resolved and may issue a whole new document. That will take years and they will probably never respond to comments on original document.  In the meantime, they lower flows annually on an ‘emergency’ basis.  We comment during drought periods when need is great.
  • Another current effort is the Planning Department’s changes to the Onsite Wastewater Treatment Systems Manual (OWTS) which is a compilation of State and local regulations and standards regarding the siting and operation of on-site wastewater (septic) systems. We are part of the Citizen’s Advisory Group (CAG) that works with staff from North Coast Regional Board, Sonoma Water, Planning and Resource Development Department (permits), County Supervisor Lynda Hopkins staff, and consultants who are part of the group planning for wastewater solutions that prevent pathogens from getting into the Russian River. This document may ultimately determine whether many septic systems along river can continue to function legally.

RRWPC needs your continued support….Donor contributions sustain our independent river protection work. We rely exclusively on six (or fewer) mailers a year for our entire fiscal support.  We can do so because we are primarily a volunteer organization. We appreciate any amount you can contribute. Donations may be sent via mailed check (with card and envelope provided) or by using PayPal at our website.   We recently placed asterisk(s) by the last names of those who have not contributed in two or more years. People with 2-3 asterisks may be removed from our list, as we will assume you are no longer interested in our work.  (Let us know if there are any mistakes or if you move.)

Also, we may need to get information out in a more timely manner in the future when important meetings come up and other important information comes up.  Only about 2/3 of you are on our email list.  We don’t send things out very often and we don’t share your email address with anyone.  If we don’t have your address or it has changed recently, please email it to us at rrwpc@comcast.net  Your letters have been very effective and have been noted and considered by agency staff.  Sometimes we need to communicate quickly and email is the best means to do so.  Thank you for your support and for caring about this magnificent area of our nation!  Your help has made a difference.     Brenda





















Important growth and expansion efforts are now occuring and more information about damage caused by failing raw sewage pipelines during major floods has become available.  Little is being done on badly needed repairs, as far as we know, while the community has little say in the formation of a whole new West County wastewater direction that includes linkage between six to ten community sewer systems into one large pipeline that travels to Santa Rosa or Windsor for treatment.  How in the world does that get governed?  (A study is being commissioned on governance under Sebastopol, so stay aware of announcements about any meetings on this topic.  We will also try to keep people informed.)

From where we sit, the Sonoma County Water Agency wants to keep RRWPC in the dark. They know we ‘spill the beans’ where information is available. While a few community meetings were held and the public was asked their thoughts on ideas mentioned above, the community was given very little information upon which to base an intelligent opinion.  From where we sat, we thought the information given was speculative at best.  Furthermore, what was expressed was ‘cherry-picked’ and in many cases fashioned to portray the idea (in the case of linked sewer systems) that it would save money because irrigation water was badly needed and the water could have a monetary value which would offset project costs.

We’re not so sure.  In rainy years, there is always plenty of water for everyone.  It’s the lean drought years that everyone worries about, and there is little wastewater available when that occurs.  Everyone was pretty thirsty by the third year of drought in 2022.  Reservoirs were almost empty.  Santa Rosa’s treated wastewater ponds went down to about 200 million gallons; when full they hold 1.5 billion gallons.  Furthermore, the City has been growing huge apartment buildings like crazy the last three years and they may need the capacity for their own growth.  (We keep asking about the vacancy rate of apartment buildings and the amount of water needed to serve them, and they said we have to wait until their next five year Urban Water Management Plan is approved, about three or four years from now.  However that amount of water needed can be surmised from building plan projections since most structures have been built in the last few years.)

RRWPC needs your continued support!