Sonoma County Gazette, May 2007

Basin Plan Amendment Changes Proposed:  Low Threat Discharges and Incidental Runoff

By Brenda Adelman

Are you prepared to recreate in wastewater?  You say “no”?  Well it won’t officially happen this summer, but the North Coast Regional Board has begun to consider an amendment to the North Coast Basin Plan that would eliminate the prohibition against summer wastewater discharges.  Their purpose would be to allow “incidental” runoff of wastewater resulting from summer irrigation.

Many locals realize that fish are as important as people in terms of exposure to toxins in water because when we eat fish, we are eating what they ate.  Furthermore, fish are like canaries in the mine; if they can’t survive, then ultimately, neither can we.  (Canaries used to be sent down into mine shafts to see if there was enough oxygen for miners.  The miners didn’t go down if the birds died.)

Some believe the proposed Basin Plan Amendment to legitimize summer runoff will cause an accumulation of toxins in river fish, along with degradation of water quality.  This Amendment will propose to allow “low threat” and “incidental” discharges in the summer, when river flows are greatly reduced and assimilation capacity of our streams will be severely challenged.  For more than the last 30 years, all wastewater discharges have been banned from the Russian River from May 15th to October 1st every year.  Now they want to change that.

This proposal started with State officials, who set a goal of saving 1,000,000 acre feet (Each acre foot is about 325,000 gallons.) of potable water by 2010 statewide through irrigation with treated wastewater.   Wastewater would be used to irrigate crops, landscapes, and gardens, and potable water will be saved for drinking (and new growth).  They even changed the name of the “product” from wastewater to recycled water in order to give it a new image.

In the meantime, we have two competing irrigation projects moving forward in Sonoma County, both intending to use Santa Rosa’s wastewater and both relying on the Basin Plan change that would allow incidental runoff.  Without this amendment, program managers could be subject to fines, penalties, and lawsuits for runoff.

Sonoma County Water Agency’s project is going to send over 100 miles of pipeline around the North County (Alexander, Dry Creek, and Russian River Valleys).  They have identified 19 possible reservoir sites that combined could hold over 2.5 billion gallons of wastewater, though it is not clear how many would be built.  Many of these reservoirs would block migration of sensitive fish species and have other major impacts.

Those of us who think about canaries a lot are concerned about the following:

  • In summer the creeks are slow and low and cannot assimilate wastewater discharges.  Because this is the time of greatest recreational use and greatest vulnerability to toxins of all kinds, no runoff of any kind should be allowed.  The summer discharge prohibition has been in effect since the 1970’s and should continue indefinitely.
  • Many people use pesticides on their lawns, which can cause neurological, developmental, reproductive, and cancer causing health problems for humans, pets, and wildlife.  Irrigation runoff should not be allowed at all on sites where chemicals are used.
  • The Laguna de Santa Rosa is listed as impaired for nitrogen, phosphorus, dissolved oxygen, temperature, and sediment.  Runoff will cause nutrient rich waters to enter the Laguna and further impair its water quality.  This in turn also exacerbates Ludwigia growth, the exotic plant wreaking havoc in the Laguna area.
  • The cumulative impacts of numerous runoff events can be devastating to the Laguna waterways and downstream Russian River recreation use and must be addressed.

Many believe the Regional Board should not allow “incidental runoff”. The term “incidental” has not been well defined.  It is a word that could have a broad range of meanings and therefore may not lend itself to enforcement. Irrigation runoff now occurs regularly and regulations are inadequate to provide protection from resulting harm.  This Amendment would cause further degradation of our already impaired waterways.

Santa Rosa irrigators have regularly over-watered their fields and the Regional Board has never imposed a monetary penalty for such events. This amendment could promote even more carelessness in irrigation practices because it would legalize the practice. People know that regulatory agencies often do not have the funding to enforce difficult regulations.  If Santa Rosa fixed their aging pipes and increased conservation, they would have far less wastewater to deal with and could resolve their problem in other ways.

RRWPC would like to collect your stories about runoff and over-watering incidents.  Please contact us at if you see any examples of irrigation water running into streams, or ponding of irrigated wastewater in either the Laguna Area or in any of the cities.  We also are distributing a letter to the Regional Board protesting this Amendment.  Contact us by email for a copy to send to the Regional Board or to be placed on our mailing list.