RRWPC Newsletter, January 2019: Highlights of Past Year

RRWPC hopes you have had a wonderful holiday season. We start by summarizing last year’s activities and our plans for the coming year. Here are a few highlights of 2018 and 2019:

  • • Numerous meetings to address clean up and environmental impacts from the fires dominated 2018. Huge efforts were conducted by County and State agencies, local environmental groups, fishery agencies, and quasi-governmental/environmental agencies, to protect water quality. RRWPC spent our time reading documents, attending meetings, and sharing ideas where appropriate. Professional organizations taking the lead on this effort had far greater expertise about fire damage to the land, and the computer skills to map and identify areas of greatest concern. We felt the situation was in very good hands, and directed our work toward other local river issues. We remain in touch with the Watershed Collaborative and will continue attending meetings occasionally.
  • • We attended three special meetings set up by Santa Rosa seeking alternative solutions to the ‘no net discharge’ of phosphorus requirement in their permit. The Regional Board had developed an optional Nutrient Offset Program to facilitate meeting this requirement that the City has opposed for the last several years, claiming it’s too complicated and expensive. Regional Board staff, on the other hand, claim that it’s the only fair and verifiable way to assure that offsets actually occur. (While many years there is no discharge, during heavy rainfall years there can be a large amount. Last winter the City discharged 1.3 billion gallons. It took all the credits they had accumulated over the prior three years to keep them in compliance with the phosphorus requirement.)

    RRWPC supports Regional Board requirements; we had been a strong voice in getting the Laguna de Santa Rosa listed as impaired for phosphorus and we are trying to do the same for the lower river. We don’t know if there is any connection, but we recently learned that the relatively new director of Santa Rosa’s wastewater department, who had been vigorously fighting this program, recently left his position for a new job in Marin. We don’t know if a new director has been selected yet. We will continue to track this situation.

  • • RRWPC took part in meetings of the new Russian River Regional Monitoring Program (R3MP) that is currently being organized. San Francisco Estuary Institute (SFEI) has been engaged as consultants to assist with this process. (They are a group of highly qualified scientific experts.) Part of their effort thus far has been to identify the perimeters of what would be studied and which data collected and where. The goal would be to avoid duplication of effort as is currently happening, while developing scientific information that would support Regional Board policies regarding clean water. Prioritization is necessary since funds don’t cover all environmental needs.

    We are hopeful that some of the monitoring might include toxins. Because of limited funds however, it is unlikely that it will. We did manage to get toxins on the list to receive consideration however. (The SFEI consultant later mentioned he was surprised that no one had included it at the prior meeting where participants brainstormed constituents to be studied, although it was not surprising since prior recommendations had never seemed to receive a positive response.) At a time when everyday holds a new horror story about unhealthy toxins in our nation’s drinking water and waterways, we will continue to try pushing this forward. (Because toxins generally don’t demonstrate immediate health effects as do pathogens, they are often not given adequate weight and are sometimes overlooked altogether.)

    • RRWPC continues to track developments with the Fish Flow (low flow) Project DEIR. It may come before the Supervisors this spring to determine what to do with the environmental document. We have strong reason to believe that it’s not going to be approved (no one likes it in its current form) and that changes will be made and the document recirculated. (An anonymous source told us that the 77 page comment letter by the State and Regional Boards threw a real wrench into County certification efforts. For years, RRWPC had been lobbying those State agencies to comment on low flow and were highly impressed by the amount of effort they put into it. We believe that the 800 protest letters submitted by river residents and visitors also helped make this happen.) We will keep you posted on developments.

    • The Russian River Pilot was an effort to develop a regional plan for a target area as part of the State’s Five Year California Water Plan. It was intended to bring together and include representatives from all parts of the community. It was our impression that the main thrust was to combine efforts to fund projects that would maximize water supplies, with minimal interest in water quality issues. (The final draft document about the Russian River just received mention in ‘sustainability’ attachments https://water.ca.gov/Programs/California-Water-Plan/Water-Plan-Updates ).

    • The Russian River Watershed Pathogen Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) Action Plan and Basin Plan Amendment is currently being rewritten and is tentatively planned for authorization by the North Coast Regional Board in April, 2019. This plan and amendment have been in the works for many years. It was originally scheduled for a final approval in December, 2017, but because of the fires it was put off until mid-2018. Then it was put off again in order to incorporate new bacteria standards being adopted by the State Board. Around the same time, County Supervisors also asked for delays to complete new septic system regulations and address public concerns.

    The State Water Board adopted their new standards recently, calling for E. coli to serve as the new limit rather than the former total and fecal coliform standards still used by Public Health. Widespread myth assumed that septic systems along the lower river were polluting the river with pathogens. While some studies indicated that bacteria existed in the lower river in summer time, it was never proven that E. coli pathogen indicators were coming from the septic systems, while they did establish that heavy beach use on summer weekends and homeless encampments DID pollute the river with bacterial pathogens.
    Furthermore, the Sonoma County Water Agency regularly sampled lower river beaches every summer between May and October over the last nine years and consequently documented that the E.coli standard was exceeded only 7% of the time, and those exceedances occurred in late fall when river flows began increasing. (Many pathogens are found to come from the Laguna area after heavy rainfalls and local septic systems do fail during heavy rains.) Because of all this, one knowledgeable person surmised that the rewrite may result in the TMDL being greatly scaled down.

    Relatedly, another interesting aspect of this involves the 2002 listing of the river between Guerneville and Monte Rio for impairment by pathogens based on total and fecal coliform exceedances. We wonder if this is no longer the standard, should that area be proposed for delisting, since nine years of samples indicate virtually no problem with E. coli in the lower river. Food for thought!
    RRWPC supports a program of determining whether antiquated redwood boxes and cesspools are polluting groundwater. The County is adopting new standards that will apply when people either take out permits that will expand capacity or a septic failure is reported. The Regional Board will send out questionaires asking for information about existing septic systems in use. These agencies are being strongly urged to develop programs that are sensitive to the needs of low income people and they have promised to do that. We will keep you posted on new developments.

    RRWPC needs your continuing support!

    RRWPC counts on your continued support to sustain our river protection work. Many of you have not donated for a while. We would love to hear from you so that we know you continue to be interested in receiving our mailers and supporting our work. Any sized donation is appreciated. We rely on six mailers a year for our entire fiscal support.