Sonoma County Gazette, March 2015: Aging West County septic systems

Aging West County septic systems long time concern for local regulators….The lack of septic management in West Sonoma County has been problematic to local officials for many years. Local waste disposal projects involve dealing with a difficult environment that includes sliding slopes, big floods, high ground water, and towering trees that shake and occasionally fall during heavy winds. In addition, we are located in an active earthquake zone.

Many of the mostly substandard lots contain inadequate septic systems by today’s standards, especially on steep hillsides and river banks, and may leak during heavy rains, sometimes ending up in groundwater, local streams, and/or the Russian River.

Conventional sewers have not provided the best protection for our constrained and volatile west county environment, partly because of the extraordinary construction and maintenance costs and limited financial assistance. Several years back, plans for both Monte Rio and Camp Meeker/Occidental sewer systems came in at $22 million each for only 600 hookups.

Occidental has been out of permit compliance 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 would need expensive new components were it to expand, and even then would probably still not withstand major floods over 42 feet.   Built in the early ‘80’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 pathogen removal 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 now requires that action be taken within the next few years to prevent septic leakage, the assumption being that very old systems pollute. Especially stringent requirements will be put in place for properties in close proximity to impaired waterways, which, according to Regional Board staff, describes most of the Russian River area. The 600’ setback previously discussed may be greatly expanded, and a greater segment of the county may be forced into compliance with new requirements. River tributaries will probably be protected by new rules as well.

Numerous pathogen sources being examined…..

Besides septics, other potential sources of bacterial contamination are being examined also, such as needed 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 to define the problem. While most have suspected all along that old septic systems may be failing, no major studies have yet fully described the situation. It is 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 indicator, doesn’t show up as a major problem in the lower Russian River.

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. The Board of Supervisors has just authorized a contract for seeking remedies with community involvement.   We urge you tentatively support their effort and hope it provides remedies that work for everyone.

Russian River Watershed Protection Committee 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 obtain public 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, generally 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 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 sample for EPA’s preferred E coli and enterococcus pathogen indicators. In reviewing this data, we have seen a moderate number of enterococcus excursions and very few E. coli excursions in the lower river. We believe the most recent beach postings indicating extensive enterococcus excursions was during 2009 when flows went 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 based on North Coast Regional Board studies, introducing a totally new standard based on bacteroides measures which they state represent recent human fecal contamination, while they continue to use E. coli measures as well. Bacteroides may or may be pathogenic, but because of the new and very stringent requirements, compliance will be much more difficult. 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 bacteria are pathogenic. They assume that widespread bacteroides readings, with a very low point of compliance, indicate that excessive human bacteria have been recently released into the river. The new standard may be impossible to achieve and yet can be used by staff to force construction of new projects to address an inadequately defined problem.

While we are not sure that the studies conducted by agencies thus far have fully justified 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. We urge everyone to tentatively support this process until we know more about the extent of the problem.