Sonoma County Gazette, March 2012

Irrigation runoff:  wastewater ‘reuse’ is the new discharge…..

In 1985, the content of Santa Rosa’s 800 million gallon sewage dump was referred to as ‘treated sewage’.  Over the years, this liquid waste became known first as treated wastewater, then reused wastewater, treated water, and now simply reused water.  This terminology has been consciously modified to make the public feel more comfortable with wastewater reuse, otherwise known as direct potable reuse or more graphically, ‘toilet to tap’.  It took 25 years to get Santa Rosa’s winter discharges out of the river (to the Geysers), but now summer discharge in the guise of irrigation runoff will take its place.  Because of lower summer flows and less dilution, the impacts in summer may be cumulatively greater than the original spill.

While it is true that sewage treatment has greatly improved in the last 27 years, it is also true that most of the 80,000 chemicals currently in existance are not monitored or regulated and we simply don’t know their effects.  Currently, the State is looking to encourage extensive wastewater reuse statewide, moving more closely to a toilet to tap philosophy, while giving what we believe is inadequate consideration of the many warnings from scientists concerned about endocrine disrupting chemical effects, pharmaceuticals, nutrient pollution, and the voluminous evidence of the dangers of pesticides and herbicides both to humans and wildlife.


Europe is currently gearing up to expand regulations on many endocrine disrupting chemicals. After having studied the level of environmental risk posed by over 2000 chemicals, they have included for the first time 15 pharmaceutical products, putting them far ahead of the United States.  Those selected are believed to cause cancer, birth defects, autism, Parkinson’s disease, immune disorders, etc., as well serious harm to aquatic life.


Sources of information on endocrine disruption
For an excellent source of information about endocrine disruptors and public health effects go to TEDX at or you can view the list of 870 possible endocrine disrupting chemicals with documented scientific studies showing effects on endocrine system at: These toxins impact many of our organ systems and can attack reproduction, fetal development, nervous sytems and behavior, immune and metabolic systems, liver, bones, other glands and tissues.
We also highly recommend viewing the video of Theo Colborn speaking on the male predicament at:  This video explains decreased sperm levels in men and reproductive health impacts expected to impact future generations. (Dr. Colborn was one of the first scientists to study endocrine disruption and wrote two important books on the topic.)
Finally, there is a article in the recent Mother Jones magazine (January/February 2012) called the “Frog of War”, page 44. This is the story of atrazine,  and the studies of well known scientist, Tyrone Hayes.  Dr. Haye’s vast research chronicles the sexual alterations to frogs whereby trace amounts of atrazine (top-selling herbicide) cause changes in the biological sex of the species.  Frogs are one of several “canaries in the mine” on the biological impacts of this widely used chemical.


Santa Rosa’s new urban wastewater irrigation system….
Santa Rosa completed construction of an irrigation pipeline last year to bring wastewater to a pilot project area on Stony Point Road between Hwy. 12 and West College Ave. (This included the Finley Center; recreational area for many small children and their families.)  The City is actively pursuing funds at this time to expand this project to an even larger area.  They developed a 106 page guide containing detailed instructions on the use of wastewater for landscape irrigation and trained the users.  In spite of this however, we recently photographed runoff on sidewalks and curbs in business parks, apartment complexes, and city properties at a time when irrigation should not be happening at all.
While the wastewater irrigated by Santa Rosa is highly treated, treatment processes are subject to human error.  Relatively few chemicals (125) are monitored and/or regulated on a consistent basis. Also, very little is known about toxicity resulting from interactions between these chemicals.  In addition, runoff carries off soil amendments, pesticides, and herbicides applied to the landscape for rapid vegetative growth and pest control to our creeks and streams. These can all exacerbate toxic effects, not to mention problems with nutrients as well.
The State defines “incidental runoff” as follows:  Incidental runoff is defined as unintended small amounts of runoff from recycled water use areas, such as unintended, minimal over-spray from sprinklers that escapes the recycled water use area. Water leaving a recycled water use area is not considered incidental if it is part of the facility design, if it is due to excessive application, if it is due to intentional overflow or application, or if it is due to negligence….”


Report on possible irrigation runoff violation….
A report on wastewater irrigation runoff in Santa Rosa was recently posted on the Russian River Watershed Protection Committee ( website. Accompanying the report are numerous pictures illustrating the problem photographed on five occasions between Dec. 16th through January 9th.  It is believed that this runoff is illegal and recently 65 pictures and a formal complaint were submitted to the Regional Board.   The report also links you to other sources of information on this important topic.
At the time photos were taken, there had been no rain for many days.  Sites were visited between 8:30 and 9:30 am.  While we never photographed actual irrigation, the wet patterns and flow on the sidewalks and streets were clearly caused by irrigation runoff.  At all times during the photo shoots, temperatures were between 32 and 40 degrees, another prohibiting factor for irrigation.  Frost was visible on the grass at times.  Water was seen dripping from parked cars, bus stop benches, along streets and sidewalks, and down the storm drain.  In one area near a bus stop, water formed a substantial pond.  And we saw no signs warning people that irrigation was being used on site.
Other Sonoma County cities will also be irrigating with wastewater this summer.   Wastewater discharge permits normally run over 100 pages long, detailing all the care that must be taken to protect the environment, even from highly treated wastewater.  We understand that Santa Rosa, whose permit is up for review this year,  is trying to have runoff limitations removed from their permit altogether. We must not allow this wastewater irrigation to be treated casually, especially at a time when creek flows are low and the assimilation capacity of toxins is minimal and human contact is very high.   Children, the elderly, and those with compromised immune systems should probably not come in contact with this water.
Please help us monitor this situation.  Contact Brenda at for further information and visit our website at