RRWPC Newsletter, January 2020: The Year Ahead

What’s in the cards for 2020?  Given the way this year has begun, with Australian wildfires, Venetian and Indonesian floods, volcanic activity in New Zealand and the Philippines, and earthquakes in Puerto Rico, and given recent extreme events at home with record-breaking fires during two of the last three years, and the sixth greatest Guerneville flood of record occurring last year, predicting similar future events in our neighborhood may be easy to do.

Will the river flood again this year?  Since last February, when the big sanitary sewer overflows spewed massive amounts of raw sewage into the Vacation Beach neighborhood, and across the river at Riverside Drive, and into the already polluted river itself, RRWPC had been speaking to the North Coast Regional Board and their staff about the probable ramifications of these events.  Now a whole year is almost gone and it appears that, while some behind the scene actions have occurred, few steps have been taken to eliminate the problem (that we are aware of).

There has been a dearth of information to the public, which is very unusual, and  RRWPC is the only one talking about this situation as far as we can tell.  We have not yet uncovered the reason for this silence, although a new standard that allows no fecal material into the Russian River has just been approved by the Regional Board and provides an embarrassing situation in this case, since this central sewer system operates under their authority and it is their responsibility to assure it is in compliance. We wrote extensively about this in our mailers, (local newspapers would do nothing with information we provided) stating that water board staff only vaguely responded to our inquiries, when at all, regarding the need to identify and fix system problems.

Although regulatory oversight is one of Regional Water Board’s most important responsibilities, from our perspective it seemed as though there was little effort to take action on finding a solution. In addition, SCWA had submitted a report that significantly understated the size of the largest spill and thereby misrepresented the full extent of the problem.  We have no reason to believe this situation will not reoccur during the next flood. (To reassure you, the river currently is nowhere near flood stage but we also have a ways to go before the rain and flood season ends.)

Reliance on discharge permit revisions before addressing RRCSD problems…..Staff spoke to us informally about resolving some of the issues through the revised discharge permit process initiated last year, but their focus seemed to be on the easy to solve problems such as methods used for public notification and how big the warning signs should be. (Discharge permits are lengthy, complicated documents citing all the necessary requirements treated wastewater needs to meet, and details about how to meet them, before discharges into rivers and streams can be allowed.  They are reviewed and updated every five years. There are no circumstances where untreated sewage is permitted to enter a river.)

One staff person told us that enforcement actions cannot be taken at the same time that an updated discharge permit is being processed, but then a different board official told us our complaint had been assigned to someone who would investigate the allegations. Yet they also said it would take a long time because there is a lot of work waiting and few staff to do all of it. They emphasized that remedies will be addressed through the permit process. Yet if no enforcement occurs, the practice may continue. (Permits take at least a year to develop since they have so few staff.)  Perhaps that is what they prefer.

Finally, most of this last year we were given the impression that what was going to be required of Sonoma County Water Agency (SCWA), managers of RRCSD, were cosmetic changes only, and that serious system problems would not be assessed or subsequently addressed.  The District’s collection system, including headworks, lift stations (11 pump stations needed for our hilly terrain), and force mains (pipelines moving the sewage from properties to treatment plant) were getting old (35 years). At a minimum they needed upgrades, if not complete replacement.  (We had always heard that pipelines were supposed to last 50 years.  Our difficult environment may cause things to deteriorate more rapidly however.

RRWPC obtains information on behind the scenes activities….Just as we sat down to write this letter, literally, we were sent a link to Sonoma County Water Agency’s (SCWA’s) Request For Proposal (RFP) for Russian River County Sanitation District (RRCSD) Headworks, Lift Stations, and Force Main Project, which requested that appropriate consultants submit project proposals. The application process had recently closed at the time we discovered this item. (Type this title into your search engine if you want to access the document.)

Proposals were requested from professional consultants to plan the very work on Russian River County Sanitation District’s Lift Stations and Force Main, major components of the collection system responsible for the sanitation sewer overflows noted above.  SCWA plans to obtain grant funding for the assessment and design plans, but obtain low interest loans, and possibly grants from the State and Federal government for the construction.  The planning document will provide cost estimates.

The first phase of the project will consist of engineering design and condition  assessment (of infrastructure) services.  This work will be paid for through a planning grant, with no guarantees given that the planned project will ever be developed.  The second phase will consist of project construction with no guarantees that funding will ever be available for all or part of the actual work.  It is expected that the revised permit will require replacement or restitution of a new force main.  The project description is so vague however, and the bidding requirements are so voluminous, that it’s hard to imagine that there are many companies to bid. We will get this information.

Required work includes the following: analyze existing conditions, provide hydraulic engineering analyses, develop design options, provide condition assessment of headworks and lift stations, develop component designs and address component deficiencies, and conduct alternative analyses for cost effective remedies, etc     .

It appears they may be planning to build the project piece meal, with each piece to be constructed with available funds over time and additional pieces constructed as money becomes available.  Details are so vague in the document, it’s hard to tell what they are going to do.  In any case, SCWA spends few pages on describing the project and about 65 pages giving excruciatingly detailed directions to potential bidders regarding other details.

RRWPC needs your continued support!  RRWPC needs your continued support to sustain our river protection work. For those who have not donated for a while, we appreciate any sized donation 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 (see date of last donation on mailer envelope). You may also contribute via PayPal at our website.