Vacation Beach Sewage Spill: 2/26/19 thru 3/3/2019

On March 6th, as Chair of Russian River Watershed Protection Committee, I received an email and pictures  from one of our supporters and a resident of the Vacation Beach area, expressing her concern about a raw sewage spill near her house (close to the Vacation Beach Pump Station).  I quote a little from her note:

I am trying to find out who is in charge of the raw sewage cleanup and enforcing sanitary regulations.  The flood mud at our house is so bad because of this raw sewage.  It looked like it was so much more sewage flowing out than ever before and this keeps happening even when the river only goes slightly above flood stage.”  In another email she told me that the manhole near her house started pouring out raw sewage on Tuesday afternoon (February 26th, about 1.5 days before peak flow late Wednesday, February 27th) and did not stop until the following Saturday afternoon (March 2nd), which comes to roughly four days of raw sewage flow.  She described the mess as being oily and sludge-like and smelling like feces, and that it had happened many times before.

Initially, she had called various agencies and did not receive satisfactory responses.  Each agency told her to call someone else.  At my suggestion, she contacted Regional Water Board office on March 7th, as did I, and the staff person said he would get back to us, but did not.  I saw him on March 19th at their office and he said he’s waiting until a 45 day report comes in about a month from now. He explained that we should not worry since there was so much water in the river, it would dilute the toxins.

To be fair, there were many crises going on at the time of the flood, but it would seem that a major raw sewage spill would be worthy of a notice to affected residents.  In checking Regional Board files two weeks later (March 19th), we found nothing of the spill in the files. The Vacation Beach homeowner (with three young children) finally got hold of Water Agency staff (operators of the system), but they weren’t very helpful in terms of assuring her that the situation was safe for her and her family.  They would not agree to clean her front yard and they took coliform samples rather than a full range of toxins. We recognize that conditions at the time were difficult, but staff at the various agencies exhibited little concern for providing meaningful assurances and help to the public.

This property owner’s main concern was getting her yard and the surrounding environment adequately tested for pollutants and having them thoroughly cleaned up, including her front yard.  It concerned her that there was inadequate notice or warning about the spill as the only sign posted was a little one that forced the reader to walk in the sewage in order to read it.  Furthermore, SCWA staff rerouted a discharge pipe to a neighbor’s property where it flooded his front yard.  I got the impression that Water Agency personnel were not very helpful, made several serious mistakes, and may have been ill-equipped to deal with this emergency.

There is a dire need for a community emergency plan that deals with all aspects of flood and sewer failures.  (Sewer failures with RRCSD often occur during floods of 40’ and more.)  Raising houses doesn’t do much good if people are flushing toilets during high waters and aging pipes allow for infiltration and inflow.  People need to be educated about limiting water use during high water situations, and full disclosure about risks should be mandatory.  Was this event intentionally kept secret from the public?

Agencies should willingly help all those affected by this spill, including thorough cleanup of affected properties.   An emergency alert system to warn people of floods and spills and other disasters is needed; education of the community should be provided for what to do in various scenarios, and a permanent remedy provided as soon as possible.  The Sonoma County Water Agency (SCWA) is masterful at getting grants and loans for their water delivery system, but need to put the same effort into finding funds for west county wastewater projects.  There was a big spill at this same Vacation Beach site in 2014 (breakage of a 16” pipe and estimated spill of 100,000 gallons of raw sewage) for which they received a significant fine. About that time, SCWA promised to rebuild/replace one pump station (of the system’s 11 pump system) each year.  So far, none have been replaced.

Regional Board files indicate that a new force main had been discussed over the last five years, but it would be very expensive.  Ratepayers have some of the highest bills in the County, topping $1550 each year and with average increases of 5% per year.  Then there is the likely addition of Monte Rio and Villa Grande to Guerneville’s system since major funding sources generally don’t allow financial loans and grants to individual home owners for septic improvements if there is a local central sewer system nearby.

The truth is, it is not feasible to put central sewer systems close to a flooding river in a fragile environment and also allow major construction in the 100 year flood plain.  A good portion of the housing and commercial stock regularly gets inundated or cut off in floods over 40’.  With global warming and a rising ocean, this is bound to get much worse, and atmospheric rivers may become a common occurrence.  We need to plan for the future.  We believe that innovative septic solutions should be pursued for the rest of West County and that a voluntary buy-out program of homes close to the river should be considered.    Russian River has one of the highest levels of repetitive flood claims in the nation.

Detailed planning needs to occur and the public needs to be fully educated on what to do and who to call during such emergencies.  Residents should be informed of water quality issues with flood water (highly toxic) and raw sewage in a timely manner. They need to know safeguards to take if they MUST be in contact with the water. Also, we wonder how migrating coho and sensitive aquatic creatures are affected by exposure to nasty toxins in both flood and sewer waters?  Is there any way to minimize this??

In general, disaster planning resources need to be reviewed, revised where inadequate, and taken to the public so as to inform them of who to call for what types of emergencies. Perhaps health advisories telling people not to catch and eat river fish at this time would also be appropriate.  It would be helpful to have a public meeting, give people information about what happened, and ask the public for input on what they need to know if the situation should repeat itself.

Brenda Adelman