Sonoma County Gazette, August 2013

NOTE: The meeting referenced below has been changed to November 22, 2013.

Down the Drain:  ‘Treated Sewage’ or ‘Recycled Water’? Words have the power to conjure up all kinds of feelings for good or ill, such as “treated sewage” or “recycled water”.  Most people would never dream that these disparate terms represent the same product.

Over the years, there has been this subtle and intentional shift in language  to persuade the public to accept exposures to treated wastewater in everyday life.  After all, it looks and smells the same as potable, and even experts can’t tell the difference.  Some officials and politicians have even tasted the local chemical concoction to certify it’s high quality.  Over the years, what used to be ‘treated sewage’ became ‘treated effluent’, then ‘wastewater’ or ‘treated wastewater’, and finally ‘recycled water’, this latter having entirely removed the ‘yuk!’ factor.  Yet little has changed in the content of the product.

Current treatment of the raw sewage is better than it used to be, and probably the term ‘treated sewage’ is no longer fair,  but ‘recycled water’ is very misleading, since of the approximately 80,000 chemicals on the market, only 125 are regulated.  We have a long way to go before we should agree to drink the stuff.  What we are learning about endocrine disrupting chemicals (most pesticides are in that category, for example) is that children are more vulnerable than adults and low dose exposures can have major impacts on the elderly or those with compromised immune systems.

The State Water Board long ago decided to ease water shortages by promoting the widespread reuse of treated wastewater for irrigation.  Locally, this promotion translated into about 2.3 billion gallons of Santa Rosa’s treated wastewater discharged onto our Laguna watershed, mostly in summer time.  This represents about a third of all Santa Rosa’s wastewater generated.  The intention of course, was to keep all the water on the land and allow it to be taken up by the crops or evaporated into the atmosphere.  While this may be what happens with most of the irrigated water, there is evidence that a significant amount winds up in our waterways.

On NOVEMBER 21st, 2013, the Regional Board will review Santa Rosa’s discharge permit which includes a “Reclamation Permit”. (Call 576-2220 for more information.) This permit sets down requirements for irrigation.   It supposedly assures that spills will be incidental and beneficial uses will be protected.  In reality however, the spills only get dealt with when they are observed and reported.  Since monitoring is required monthly, that leaves 29 or 30 days where irrigation can be happening out of view.  Furthermore there is little or no investigative work by regulators to assure that operations are reasonable and proper and according to the law.  If spills are happening and go unobserved and unreported, they don’t exist. The system relies on self reporting.  In other words, the fox is guarding the chicken house.

In the urban areas there is far greater risk to the public from contact with the recycled wastewater.  When irrigation water runs off into the creeks, it likely does far more harm than winter discharges as the creeks either have no natural flow or very little in summer and are unable to absorb any of the unregulated toxins in the wastewater or carried off from treated landscapes. Furthermore, with low flows the problem may become even worse.

Wastewater is rich in nutrients that help the plants grow.  Unfortunately, they sometimes contain too many nutrients causing excessive plant growth and, along with unmonitored remnant toxins, end up nourishing invasive plants and slimy algae in our rivers and streams.  These nutrients remove oxygen from the water, which harms the fish and other aquatic life resulting in a natural unbalance that leads to degraded water quality.

The reclamation permit is very strong on requirements and very weak on monitoring for runoff, and even worse on enforcement. The Regional Board oversees compliance with the Permit, but relies on affidavits from Santa Rosa officials to certify accuracy of reports.  The responsible staff sign off based on reports from their lead staff.  It is unlikely whether these people actually go on site and check irrigation practices directly.  Then at each site there is an authorized person in charge, who signs off on reports saying no, (or some) spills have occurred. But that person may not have been present when the problem occurred (if one did), since it was probably a workman or landscape contractor employee that actually witnessed the irrigation.  Or perhaps the irrigation is automatic.  The permit requires annual inspections in that case.

Irrigating urban parcels without runoff is extremely problematic, since most sites contain major amounts of impervious surfaces, as opposed to agricultural areas in large open spaces. After two complaints were filed against Rohnert Park for over-irrigation in 2010, things changed for a brief time. (We saw had seen water everywhere; it was going into driveways, sidewalks, streets, etc. and ultimately into storm drains leading to local streams and the Russian River.

We share one example with you to describe the problem.  An apartment building is listed as irrigating two acres.  It is unclear how much of that acreage contains the building and impervious surfaces, which should not be irrigated.  Also there need to be setbacks from the street and nearby creeks.  Anyway, we looked at how much water was used per acre on some of the largest water users.  This two acre parcel used almost a million gallons an acre for the year whereas one of the biggest agricultural irrigators used about 450,000 gallons per acre and he was getting paid to use the water!

Furthermore, in looking at annual reports for all irrigators, we saw relatively small numbers of spills listed and for very small amounts.  For instance, the report would claim there were 4 spills for 40 gallons on a parcel that had used about 2 million gallons of water.   But after the spill complaints were filed, there was daily monitoring of all 20 Rohnert Park sites for fourteen days and they cited 129 spill events in that time.  The apartment building we just referred to had 8 spills in 14 days with no monitoring on one of the 14 days.

In other words, no one is really minding the store in a conscientious way.  No one has any idea how many gallons are getting into local creeks.  We do know however, that some of the worst nutrient pollution on the North Coast is just west of Rohnert Park and Santa Rosa.

Read RRWPC full comments on our website and for earlier comments, go to We urge people to attend the meeting at the North Coast Board at 5550 Skylane Blvd. on NOVEMBER 21st. (NOTE: THIS DATE HAS BEEN CHANGED FROM AUGUST 22.)  Please send Target Letter expressing your concern about Santa Rosas’s permit to discharge unmonitored recycled water.