Sonoma County Gazette, September 2007

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly…. Wastewater news…

Brenda Adelman

The good news is that Santa Rosa intends to get most of their wastewater out of the river between October 1st and May 15th each year, by sending almost all of it to the Geyser’s steam fields.  The bad (and ugly) news is that they are promoting the allowance of “incidental” discharges during summer when flows are low, human use is high, and waterways are more vulnerable to pollution.

Santa Rosa wants to eliminate the summer wastewater discharge prohibition because their goal is to offset water supplies needed to serve new development in the Southwest part of the City.  New urban homes, schools, parks, businesses, etc. will be irrigated with as much as 2 billion gallons a year, the same amount now used for agricultural irrigation. Water customers will be charged the same price for “reused” water as for potable water since Santa Rosa assumes that people will be grateful to use their wastewater.  On the surface of things, it seems like a good idea.

Words are the game these days and the key establishment words in this game are “incidental” runoff and “low-threat” discharges.  Santa Rosa has informed the Regional Water Quality Control Board that these discharges must be allowed if they are to implement an urban irrigation project.  Since the State goal is now to recycle a million acre feet a year by 2010, Santa Rosa’s project is likely to receive strong support from the Regional Board for this $120 million dollar project.  While our group supports appropriately applied irrigation on large parcels and farmlands, we are very concerned about cumulative impacts from the irrigation with treated wastewater of large numbers of small parcels and common areas of multi-unit residences.

Russian River Watershed Protection Committee doesn’t believe that adequate monitoring and controls will be in place perpetually to assure that accidental spills are truly minimal and contained at all times.    While their intentions are good, the Regional Board is never adequately funded to do the job they need to do.  Many violations fall through the cracks.  Yet they are planning a change to Santa Rosa’s stormwater permit to allow these summer discharges and also an Amendment to the Basin Plan, which governs water quality activities and regulations for the whole North Coast.

To their credit, Regional Board staff are now developing stiff requirements for this wastewater reuse project.  We have not seen all the details yet, but if this were a perfect world, perhaps the stipulations would work.  In real life however, things go wrong.  Santa Rosa assumes that this “recycled” water will be carefully managed so that incidental runoff will consist of a few gallons here or there on an infrequent basis.  We visualize property owners however, using treated wastewater as though it is potable water without much awareness of the difference.

Do you remember all the pictures in the Press Democrat last July of people over watering their lawns?  How many forgot to turn off the hose in order to save water?  While Santa Rosa’s treated water looks just like potable water, it is not.  It contains heavy metals, residual pathogens, endocrine disruptors, pharmaceuticals, personal care products, etc. whose safety and removal from the waste stream is unknown.  Recent articles about the “cocktail” effect of the many chemicals we come in contact with on a daily basis, indicate chemicals have additive effects and cause greater impacts when combined with others, even at low doses.  There are over 80,000 chemicals in existence.  Birth defects, cancer, and other health problems have been known to result from even minimal exposures.  Yet this project would expose more at risk children and pets to contact with unknown substances, which would be further compounded if people also use pesticides, herbicides, soil amendments, etc. on their irrigated areas.  These in turn can leach into the waterways through over-irrigation and expose recreationists as well.  Because so much is not known about the affects, we believe that more caution should be used in the distribution of this waste.

The City has stated that property owners along the pipeline may eventually be FORCED to use the wastewater for irrigation.  If this is the case, and people are not using it willingly, then how much care will they take in its application?  If a Basin Plan amendment allows runoff, then determining whether it was incidental may be very difficult.  Right now such run off is illegal, but almost never enforced. Penalties are almost never applied. The City wants summer runoff legalized in order to eliminate the possibility of future lawsuits should the impacts become clear.  They already state that legalizing runoff is a necessary precursor to this project.

Yet, there is so much that is not known about the effects of this wastewater, that it should not be used where vulnerable humans in the population could easily be exposed to it.  The State Health Department gives clearance for its use based on very limited perimeters and does not address major chemicals of concern. We’d welcome your input on this issue.  Please contact us at: You might also want to express your  views to the North Coast Regional Board.  Please Email Mona Dougherty at: