February 2015 Newsletter

Problematic waste disposal long time concern for local officials….
The history of lax septic management in West Sonoma County has been considered problematic for many years because of a very difficult environment that includes sliding slopes, big floods, high ground water, and towering trees that shake and sometimes fall during heavy winds. The mostly substandard lots can contain inadequate septic systems, especially on steep hillsides and river banks, that may leak during heavy rains (other times also) ending up in the Russian River.
Conventional sewer has not proven to be the best way to go in our very constrained and volatile west county environment partly because of the extraordinary construction costs and limited financial assistance. (Several years back, plans for both Monte Rio sewer system and Camp Meeker/Occidental came in at $22 million each for about 600 hookups.) Numerous leaders have tried to address the problem for some communities and have mostly failed. Occidental has been out of compliance with their permit for almost 20 years and are now under orders to build a new system by 2017.

Russian River County Sanitation District has a tertiary system that needs expensive new components, and even then will probably still not withstand major floods over 42’. Built in the 1980’s, it was one of the last systems to receive 87.5% government grant funding.
New septic regulations on the way….
Centralized sewer systems must meet stringent coliform requirements before being allowed to discharge into local streams. Little is known about the extent to which old septic systems pollute our waterways, but new legislation will now require that action be taken within the next few years to prevent possible disease causing septic leakage. Especially stringent requirements will be put in place for properties in close proximity to impaired waterways, which describes most of the Russian River. The 600’ setback previously established may be greatly expanded, and a greater segment of west county could be considered as needing to come under compliance with the new requirements. Small creeks feeding into the Russian River may also be protected by new rules.
Numerous pathogen sources being examined…..
Besides septics, other potential sources of bacterial contamination are being examined also, such as need for bathrooms for river recreationists and the homeless, leaks from centralized sewer systems, irrigation spills, agricultural discharges, pet waste, dairy runoff, and urban storm water runoff. The North Coast Regional Board has been conducting studies the last several years in the Russian River and tributaries to define the problem. While everyone has suspected all along that some or many old septic systems may be failing, no major studies have yet fully defined the situation. It is very possible there is a serious problem needing to be addressed, but we are not totally convinced that the studies thus far conducted are totally persuasive in defining the extent of the problem. For instance, E. coli, the conventional pathogen measurement, doesn’t show up as a major problem in the lower Russian River most of the time.
Nonetheless, RRWPC believes it is time to step up to the plate and explore measures that are innovative and affordable and publically acceptable for addressing potential septic problems. Apparently, the Board of Supervisors has just granted a contract for seeking remedies with community involvement. We tentatively support their effort and hope it provides remedies that work for everyone. We will watch the process as it unfolds and keep you posted.
RRWPC supports septic management districts that periodically inspect all septics in a defined area for compliance with health regulations. It would be the district’s responsibility to help owners comply with regulations through feasible remedies for dealing with their waste. There can be many different approaches and the County must be willing to allow varied and reliable innovative approaches having approval from regulatory agencies that oversee public health and water quality. These approaches should include programs to help low income citizens pay for needed upgrades or new systems. This help is essential to our support for any program. No one should be pushed off their property as a result of future changes!
Recreational beaches’ bacteria studies…..
EPA studies indicating links between fecal contamination and illness, center on E. coli and enterococcus indicators for the determination of potential disease risk in recreational waters. They have recommended that E. coli is the best indicator of pathogens in fresh water recreational waters, and enterococcus, while also used for fresh water, is preferred for estuaries and ocean beaches. These are only recommendations however and not requirements.
Sonoma County Water Agency (SCWA) and Sonoma County Public Health Department (SCPH) have conducted bacteriological studies at public beaches in lower river during summer recreation season for many years. They formerly relied on total coliform and fecal coliform measures to assess contamination, but now sample for EPA’s preferred E coli and enterococcus pathogens. In looking at this data, RRWPC has seen that there have been a moderate number of enterococcus excursions and very few E. coli excursions in the lower river. We recall the most recent time that beach postings indicated enterococcus excursions was during 2009 when flows got down to 47 cfs at Hacienda and were extremely low throughout the lower river during much of that summer. We are very concerned about the strong link between river pollution and very low flows.
New bacteria standard….
There is now a major and precedent setting change recommended and studied by the North Coast Regional Board, which has introduced a totally new standard based on bacteroides measures which they state represents recent human fecal contamination only, but they continue to use E. coli measures as well. E coli is an indicator for pathogenic bacteria, while bacteroides may or may not have pathogens. Because large amounts of E. coli have not been found in the lower river, they use this new standard to declare the river is contaminated with bacteria, without determining to what extent it is pathogenic. They have found widespread readings of bacteroides, thus indicating that recently released human bacteria exists in the river at the time of sample.
While we are not sure that the studies conducted by agencies thus far have indicated a dire need for major new regulation, we are concerned that, should an outbreak occur in the future of some difficult disease, we would not be in a position to control it. In this changing world that includes new outbreaks of serious diseases, measures should be taken soon to prepare for a different, and more uncertain, future reality in this regard.
RRWPC needs your continued support….
Over the last 35 years, RRWPC has ceaselessly advocated for the health of the lower Russian River. We challenged Santa Rosa’s plans for increased wastewater discharge, we advocated successfully for phosphorous impairment listing for the Laguna and soon hopefully the lower river, and we are currently seeing some response to our 20 years concern about toxic chemicals.
RRWPC needs your continued support. Even if you can’t afford to donate much now, all donations are very much appreciated. They inform us that you support our work. We depend exclusively on mailers for our fiscal support. We especially appeal to those who have not donated in awhile. We also urge you to join our email list for important announcements between mailers: rrwpc@comcast.net Thank you for caring about the Russian River.