January 2010: Monte Rio Sewer Concern


January, 2010

Dear RRWPC Supporter:

RRWPC continually receives large numbers of documents, reports, articles, and studies about our water environment.  Sifting through the mound of paper and emails to decide what is important and what can be tentatively ignored or thrown out can become a humongous task.  Often we use precious storage space to save things that end up falling by the wayside.  The piles of information grow as the ability to absorb it all declines.

When our work began (1980), there were few computers and no Internet.  Information was hard to come by and sometimes expensive to obtain. Sometimes it seems that there is more attention paid to completing mountains of reports and studies, while losing touch with how human activities impact the natural world.   Species loss is happening at an alarming rate, and when we figure out what to do, it’s often too little and too late.

A recent Press Democrat article entitled “A bad year for salmon….” included a chart of returning Chinook salmon from 2000 to 2009.  The number of returning fish ranged from 1125 (2008) to 6103 (2003) with 1801 returning last year. (Not that long ago, 6103 migrating fish could be seen over the course of hours and not months.) But experts can still only theorize about the reasons for these miniscule returns and what to do about increasing them. Complex explanations include excessively warm water, too many toxins in the waterways, poor ocean conditions (lack of food), habitat destruction (riparian removal), not enough stream flow, and ideal conditions for predator species, etc.  But still, there is no clear vision of what must be done to bring these species back. The Monte Rio and lower Russian River situation is one example of this problem.

Monte Rio sewer concerns revived…..
The Sonoma County Community Development Commission (CDC), the County Agency in charge of Redevelopment in our area, established a Monte Rio Wastewater Task Group last year charged with studying area sewer and water quality problems. Thirteen community members were appointed by the County Commission to take part; Dan Fein is the Chair.  This is one of several community groups formed over the years to address this issue.  RRWPC attended the last three meetings as a public member. In November, the group adopted a mission statement as follows:

“To define the issues, research wastewater methods, systems and governance, educate the public, and recommend to the CDC, the most cost effective, approvable wastewater solution(s) for property owners and tenants of the Monte Rio area that will allow them to improve and build on their properties and protect public health and the environment.”

The plan for subsequent meetings was to have a series of presentations on various sewer issues to take place at the Monte Rio Community Center on the third Monday of the month at 6:30 PM.   These meetings are open to the public.  At the December meeting the group heard an interesting presentation on septic systems by committee member and former County health official, Rich Holmer.  The recent January meeting addressed water quality regulations and health issues and included a panel of experts from the Well and Septic Division of the County Planning Department (PRMD), along with representatives from the North Coast Regional Board, the Sonoma County Water Agency, and Sonoma County Environmental Health.

Monte Rio sewer history:  high costs and severe constraints….
As you may recall, after more than ten years of attempting to develop a local sewer solution, the County dissolved the effort last year and gave up $17 million dollars in grants, loans, and projected fees to build a project that would serve 600 parcels.  The project would have cost $22 million or more and there was no way this small community could come up with the money.  A similar situation occurred in Camp   Meeker and Occidental at almost the same time.  In fact, similar situations are being replayed all over the State.  Small communities cannot afford the extraordinary expense of building even a moderately sized collection and treatment system without a great deal of financial help.  The Russian River County Sanitation District, completed in 1983, was the last system to receive State and Federal funding of 87.5%.  It is highly unlikely that anything like that will be repeated any time soon.

There are also many environmental constraints to situating sewers in our area that contribute to the extraordinary expense.  Monte Rio is in a floodplain and it is illegal under the Federal Clean Water Act and the California Porter-Cologne Act to allow sewage or wastewater to enter the waterways, except under very regulated conditions.  Septic and sewer systems are required to be designed and constructed to prevent spills, including flood conditions when there is water everywhere.  Other local difficulties include steep hillsides susceptible to slides and erosion, high ground water tables and inadequate soils to filter wastes in the lower areas, susceptibility to liquefaction during earthquakes, and small lot sizes densely developed near the river and in the floodplain.

In addition, the lower river between Guerneville and Monte Rio has been declared as impaired for pathogens under the Clean Water Act.  That means that an assessment needs to be completed to determine the amount and sources of the pathogens.  The Health Department uses an indicator organism called coliform and/or different kinds of bacteria to measure the amount of pollution.  The pathogens can come from wild or domesticated animals (dairies and pets); they can come from failing septics or sewer discharges (human wastes); they can come from near or far and even be stored in sediments to be stirred up in the summer when people recreate in the river.

There are tests that can tell if the source is human or animal, but probably can’t identify which specific septic is failing or whose dog or baby just made a mess.  All last summer, samples were taken at popular lower river beaches and the river was monitored for indicator pathogens (The lower river was tested at Healdsburg, Hacienda, Johnson’s Beach and the Monte Rio Beach.)  The biggest problem was with the Enterococcus bacteria causing some beaches to be posted with signs warning people to swim at their own risk.  Over the summer, there were five exceedances at the Monte Rio Beach, nine at Johnson’s Beach, and five at Hacienda.  Healdsburg Memorial Beach had two.  None of the numbers were considered dangerous or the beaches would have been closed.  (There is more to this story and we will continue it in the next mailer.)

RRWPC needs your help!
RRWPC will be taking on many demanding challenges this year.  We are honored that so many of you continue to support our work with your donations; we couldn’t serve without you.  As usual, we are in need of donations of any size.  Please give as generously as you can, especially if you have not donated in awhile, and also please pass this information on to other interested parties. The month and year of your last donation is next to your name on the label.  If you prefer donating electronically, you can access PayPal at our website at RRWPC.   We hope to hear from you soon.