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West County Wastewater Tsunami
By Brenda Adelman

A wastewater tsunami exploded in mid-January, leaving behind a totally altered landscape in western Sonoma County. The repercussions will be vast and no one knows exactly how it will play out! There were four cataclysmic meetings in three days where the drama was intense, and sheer coincidence that they all happened at about the same time.

On Monday, January 7th, the North Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board hosted a meeting for community activists, interested citizens, numerous Regional Board staff and County and State agency representatives. It had been organized by Board member Bill Massey. Bill stated that he had recused himself from all Regional Board votes on West County wastewater issues so that he could play an active role in helping to address concerns about anticipated new regulations in Assembly Bill 885, which will heavily affect the lower Russian River Area.

While we do not know yet exactly what the new regulations will include, we do know that septic systems within 600' of waterways will receive a great deal of scrutiny. Those water bodies that have been identified as impaired, especially for pathogens and nutrients, will be closely studied. The section of the Russian River impaired for pathogens is from Fife Creek in Guerneville (near Safeway) and Dutch Bill Creek in Monte Rio, although Regional Board staff indicated that this designated area of impairment may be expanded further.

Within the next few years, the Regional Board will conduct studies that will determine whether septics along the river are actually causing pollution problems. Any particular septic found to be causing problems will have to be repaired within legal guidelines. In extreme cases, where repairs simply cannot be made, properties can be condemned. While this situation may be years down the road (studies will take a long time and there will be a public review process before any actions are taken), nevertheless, Director Massey urged those in attendance to begin thinking about possible remedies, including creative solutions using less expensive, innovative technologies. There was also an emphasis on local control. We will write much more about this in future articles.

On Tuesday morning, the Board of Supervisors considered and voted to shut down the planned Monte Rio wastewater project that had been eight years in the making, because it was at least $2.6 million dollars short with no additional funding in sight. The County had hit a brick wall in terms of funding problems, which is indicative of the times. While a majority of people in the community twice voted to tax themselves to pay for part of the sewer, there were many concerns that it was getting far too expensive for the number of hookups and didn't even serve many of the properties having the worst pollution problems. Monte Rio property owners are now aware that they have to address these issues in some other manner and will be exploring alternative and affordable solutions to the problem.

Meeting number three took place Tuesday evening at the Camp Meeker Recreation and Park District. It was a dramatic evening since much of the power was still out for the fifth day because of a fallen tree and the meeting had to be moved from Anderson Hall to the Fire District meeting room. About 30 people were squeezed in the tiny room. The main item on the agenda was a decision to certify the environmental impact report (EIR) on the $22 million dollar pipeline project to the Russian River County Sanitation District (RRCSD). The problems with this project have been frequently described in prior news articles.

The drama was intense. Everyone thought that the vote would be unanimous in favor of certification because Occidental was threatened by heavy fines by the Regional Water Board for being out of compliance with their discharge permit. The prevailing idea was that the EIR could be certified, thereby getting Occidental off the hook, but that the project would not be built. At that price, no one wanted it. Yet many in the room felt the EIR was deficient in serious ways noted by Board members, and the project had too many unknowns in regards to needed RRCSD upgrades. We have no space for details now of who did what, other than to say that, of the five Board members, one could not vote because of a possible conflict of interest, two supported certification, and two felt the EIR was deficient and for that reason voted against it. This killed the EIR.

The very next morning, our group was scheduled to attend a meeting with key Regional Board staff about West County wastewater issues. The meeting had been scheduled almost two months prior. We broke the news to staff about the vote. We are not sure, but it seemed as though they were more open than they had been to looking at local, affordable solutions, such as community septics and septic management districts. For years, they had supported the concept of big pipeline projects and regionalizing the RRCSD, and over those years, we had stated over and over why we believed that would not work.

All of a sudden, it feels like the dynamic on West County wastewater issues has changed. We don't know where it will go but we hope many people will get involved in seeking new solutions. Our role will be to keep you informed.

Brenda Adelman is chair of Russian River Watershed Protection Committee. They can be reached at

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