February 2014, Newsletter: The Drought and Wastewater Use

DROUGHT! This word is foremost in Californian’s minds these days, and no less in Sonoma County. Recent Press Democrat headlines shout, “Water officials say turn off that tap”, with the added mantra of: “The drought is on; Turn the water off!” This energetic winter water conservation campaign by Sonoma County Water Agency (SCWA) and their nine major contractors is a first.

If no significant rain occurs between now and July, Lake Mendocino, serving Mendocino and northern Sonoma County, may be completely drained (based on average use over last several months). Rainfall in 2013 was only one fourth of the average amount. Water Agency claims it’s the driest of all 119 years of record keeping.

Last year SCWA had petitioned State Water Board and, concerned about having enough water for salmonid fish, was granted the right to implement reduced summer flows in response to the lack of spring rain. Concerned that low flows would diminish recreation and harm water quality, RRWPC initiated a campaign to persuade the State Water Board to require mandatory conservation among prime Agency contractors.

Mandatory conservation was not implemented, but we were assured by Water Board staff that adequate water was available at Lake Sonoma and would be released to accommodate recreation and water quality needs in our area. Perhaps in hindsight, it would have been better to implement stricter conservation measures for everyone.

Right now, in what is usually our wettest time of the year, water conditions are far worse than last. The hills are brown at a time when they are usually bright green. Dairy farmers are forced to sell off part of their herds because there is too little forage and they can’t afford to truck in the amount of food and water needed to keep all their cows. One dairyman reported hauling water for his herd since last November.

Cloverdale and Healdsburg, upstream of the Dry Creek confluence, rely on Lake Mendocino and have ordered mandatory conservation. Endangered coho, and threatened Chinook and Steelhead are trapped in pools upstream of the Jenner Estuary, in some cases having too little river water to swim upstream to spawning areas, which are similarly dry anyway. And last, but not least, water rights of some vineyards are in jeopardy, since Governor Brown announced an emergency that would include cutting back most recent water rights. Many fear that drought will ravage their crops for 2014.

Conditions are even worse in other parts of the State, and yet mandatory conservation measures for both urban (SCWA) and rural (State Water Board) aren’t being implemented by either. If there is little rain in the next two months, the situation will become more dire and need to cut back, more extreme. Since everyone agrees there is a critical problem, why not implement strict cut backs now? Voluntary cutbacks of 10% to 20% are requested, while reservoirs are 15% to 25% of normal and rapidly going down. SCWA contractors in 2009 imposed tiered rates and some mandatory conservation measures to address serious water shortages back then. This resulted in reduced water sales to SCWA contractors far greater than 2013 when voluntary conservation occurred.

Santa Rosa’s new discharge permit approved by Regional Board….
Since our last mailer, on Nov. 21, 2013, the North Coast Regional Board authorized Santa Rosa’s new discharge permit after almost one year’s review. RRWPC had submitted extensive comments on the Reclamation Permit because of our concern about ‘incidental runoff’, caused by over-irrigating wastewater, particularly on small urban parcels. This wastewater, while highly treated, still has unregulated remnant toxins that can seriously affect aquatic life, and sometimes humans as well. It is the same wastewater about which almost 200 pages of regulations were written in the permit to control its use. While the regulations cover a lot, requirements for monitoring and enforcing runoff appears shamefully inadequate. Without adequate enforcement, regulation is worthless.

Furthermore, the wastewater, containing extensive nutrients and trace amounts of harmful chemicals, enters the Laguna which is listed under the Clean Water Act as severely impaired and degraded by nutrients. There is one area west of Rohnert Park where most egregious runoff occurs, so thick with invasive Ludwigia that one could probably walk across the creek on the tubular plants. (Regional Board Staff have asserted that the Laguna has no remaining assimilative capacity for phosphorus, and discharges of this nutrient are in other ways carefully controlled.) The runoff also carries off fertilizers, also loaded with nutrients. None of this even addresses issue of endocrine disruption from toxic pesticides and herbicides running off as well.

Minimal monitoring and reporting of runoff is required, and when spills into storm drains are reported, and when amounts are estimated, they are deemed inconsequential. Generally only amounts of five to ten gallons are reported, based on a brief overview that does not apparently consider length of time the spill had been going on. Furthermore, spills are supposed to be repaired immediately and are expected to not reoccur. Yet the same sites continually report runoff year after year after year. Even when reported to authorities, fines are never levied and apparently repeated irrigation problems are never effectively addressed.

The Regional Water Quality Control Board has over 200 pictures of runoff into storm drains in their files taken in 2010, in Rohnert Park and Santa Rosa, and some of the same sites continue to pollute year after year after year…….

Endocrine disruption chemicals continue to be ignored….
RRWPC has written a great deal about this issue. There is more and more science coming out verifying the impacts of low dose exposures to these chemicals both for humans and wildlife. We urge you to visit our website at www.rrwpc.org and view recent articles and comments in the Regional Board and Recycled Water sections.

Russian River County Sanitation District draft permit comments submitted…..
RRWPC recently submitted extensive comments on RRCSD’s draft discharge permit to Regional Board. (check section under Regional Board on website) We expressed similar concerns about wastewater irrigation runoff as mentioned above, although in this case, runoff goes directly into river when it occurs.

RRWPC initiates monthly email updates….
Beginning in March, those of you on our email list will receive monthly Russian River issue updates in the non-mailer months. About a fourth of you have already shared email addresses with us and we hope more of you sign on. All you have to do is to place email address on your donor card or send email listing request to rrwpc@comcast.net We promise not to share your contact information with anyone.

RRWPC as usual will take on difficult challenges this year. (i.e., drought, low flow environmental documents, wastewater irrigation overflow issues, nutrient issues, and more) We are expecting to hire a lawyer soon to assist us with one of our issues. We cannot give details now, but are in need of donations of any size for legal fees, our mailers and other expenses. Since we have cut back to four mailers a year, donations have gone down a bit. Please give as generously as you can so we can carry on our work for the Russian River. Please share this information with other interested parties.