RRWPC Newsletter, November 2019: Year in Review

West County Wastewater Issues Dominate 2019….

West County wastewater issues were the primary challenge for RRWPC in 2019.  It was notable that our local public treatment works (after two floods) had three separate spills that released over one million gallons of raw sewage at two Russian River County Sanitation District (RRCSD) manholes adjacent to Riverside Drive and Vacation Beach pump stations. 

  Days before the second, and largest flood and spill (February 26th through March 2nd), the Regional Board bestowed their Russian River Stewardship Award to myself for RRWPC’s efforts in protecting Russian River water quality over many years.  We were deeply honored by the acknowledgement, but as we would soon need to challenge their response (or lack of it) regarding the spills, it came at an awkward time.

As pointed out in prior mailers, RRWPC and Esa Parr Day, a resident severely affected by the spills, provided Regional Board with extensive written and photographic evidence of spill impacts.  We talked privately with staff.  We had meetings with Supervisor Hopkins and Water Agency personnel (managers of the system) and we filed a six page formal complaint when it seemed that nothing was happening.  We researched the files about the status of the system and discovered there had been plans to study the force main for possible replacement (including pipeline transporting sewage across the river), but for some reason had been dropped.  (We saw nothing in the five year Capital Improvement Plan that anticipated funding for such a project.)

We saw no news articles in local papers about these events, although we had sent notices around.  We submitted an article that had been enthusiastically invited by one paper’s editor who then turned around and eliminated it, with no explanation, from the print edition before publication.

Regional Board appears to ignore our concerns….

We continually presented our concerns to the Board at almost every local meeting this year, asking them to take action concerning this grossly illegal event.  Since there were plans in the works to possibly hook up Monte Rio and Villa Grande to this system, we advocated strongly for a thorough study of the status of this 35 year old system.  We heard nothing in response, other than a short letter saying the spills were illegal and they were looking into it. (There had been reports to the State Water Board staff about the spills, one of which was inaccurate, and all lacking in detail about what would be done about the situation.)  They indicated they may make some reporting changes in RRCSD’s discharge permit next year when it’s under review.

At the August Board meeting, I once again brought up the lack of response to my concerns about these spills that occurred over six months earlier. Nothing much was stated publicly, but after the meeting one of the lead staff informed me verbally that the spills were illegal, that they were turned over to one of their enforcement staff (someone extraordinarily overloaded with work) and that an investigation would occur.  Of course, she added that there was no estimate of how long this would all take.  It will be up to RRWPC to continue the pressure for an analysis of the current condition of this system that may be near the end of its useful life. (my words, not hers)

New regulation would hold septic owners culpable for similar failures….

The Board’s apparent inaction on the spills seemed odd in light of ten years of preparation, for finalization of the Draft TMDL Action Plan for the Russian River Watershed Pathogen Total Daily Maximum Load and Prohibition of the Discharge of Fecal Waste Materials as an amendment to the Water Quality Control Plan for the North Coast Region.  (finalized last August) This document requires extensive changes to Russian River septic system management with a focused target on Monte Rio and Ville Grande. Proposed regulations assert that any discharge of fecal matter to a tributary or the Russian River was illegal at all times of the year, including during floods.  One option proposed to address alleged septic issues was hook up to the failing RRCSD which was apparently a far greater polluter of the Russian River than any aggregate of local septic systems.  Nine years of weekly monitoring data at lower river beaches between May 15th and October 15th failed to demonstrate significant problems with pathogenic bacterial pollution. They used an unofficial surrogate to claim that such pollution is occurring.

The Action Plan was based on the assumption that the Health and Safety of the River for recreational use must be protected (a goal with which we strongly agree).  But regulators assumed there was recreational use in the river at all times and under all conditions, including major floods.  They stated that their evidence demonstrated that the river was polluted with bacteria in the summer, which we found to be mostly untrue, based on monitoring noted above.  Of course, during floods, when recreational use is most unlikely, the river is highly polluted as a result of polluted discharges from many different sources, and contact should be avoided if at all possible.  RRWPC seeks clarity and consistency in their regulatory behavior.  We also want to protect local citizens from overbearing and excessively expensive new burdens.

In the response to comments, Regional Board staff acknowledged that they didn’t have evidence to prove that specific septic systems are polluting the Russian River.   Because septic inspections would be required every five years under new requirements, it would ultimately assure that all systems function properly and not be at risk of polluting the water way.  Other new requirements will include design of new and replacement systems by qualified experts.  This has been a more controversial requirement and it is hoped that the definition of ‘expert’ will not add extraordinary costs to repair or replacement projects.  This will have to be ironed out in the future.

The Water Agency recently developed a work plan to obtain funding for a professional study to look at possible projects that included individual septic upgrade, community septics, and/or hook up to RRCSD.  The problem, yet unaddressed, is that hookup to a central system, to be economically viable, would need all or most properties to connect to RRCSD, since it is unlikely they could hook up systems piecemeal.  We are tracking the evolution of this plan.

RRWPC supports the following…..

We support regular inspections (every five years) of existing septic systems.  These inspections should be effective while not pricing owners or tenants out of their houses.  There should be a broad enough selection of qualified people available so that inspections could be lined up in a reasonable amount of time at a reasonable cost. While the river may not have a significant bacterial pollution problems in summer now, future conditions could change.  We do not want to take chances that some life threatening infection could take hold in the future.  We support septic upgrades and replacements over hookup to a central sewer, mainly because of the situation demonstrated in the early part of this letter.  To fix the current system to allow for expansion of the District would be enormously expensive for current and future ratepayers.  RRWPC is represented on the Citizens Advisory Group (CAG) that meets the last Thursday of each month (changed to 3rd Tuesday this Nov. and Dec. only) and is open to the public.  We intend to provide information about central sewer system issues over the coming year(s).  We hope you will drop by and join us (6-8 pm at Monte Rio Community Center).

RRWPC thanks our supporters this holiday season….

This is the time when we thank all who have supported us this past year, including our Board of Directors (Brenda Adelman, Nichae Blume, Dave Blanchard, Dennis O’Leary, and Sherrie Althouse), numerous mailer volunteers, including Wayne Gibb, John Uniack, Lisa Vasse, Jean Marquardt, Dale Jenkins, Cynthia Strecker, and all who contributed funds to sustain our efforts between Nov. 1, 2018 and Oct. 31, 2019. (see donor list). We also thank Russian River Senior Center for allowing us to use their space to assemble our mailers.  We thank Mary Anne Sobieraj for website upkeep, Dennis O’Leary for serving as Secretary and Sherrie Althouse for serving as treasurer over many years. Mark Wiley and Dave Blanchard helped with computer maintenance.

RRWPC needs your support!

RRWPC needs your continued support to sustain our river protection work. For those who have not yet donated this year, we appreciate any sized donation annually so that we know you remain interested in receiving our mailers and supporting our work.  RRWPC relies exclusively on six mailers a year for our entire fiscal support.  Those not responding for over two years may be removed from our list at the start of 2020 (see date on mailer envelope). You may also contribute via PayPal at our website. (above)        Thank you and have a wonderful holiday season!