Sonoma County generates 240,000 tons of trash annually, almost matching the yield of the county's signature crop, grapes.
Wine is exported with pride.
Not so much with trash, about half of which is trucked to landfills elsewhere in California. But after several years of hard bargaining, Sonoma County is getting close to disposing of its own waste.
The linchpin is an agreement that would clear the way for expansion of the county landfill southwest of Cotati, extending its lifespan about two decades. Negotiations between the county and eight of its nine cities are nearing completion.
"I'm hearing from both sides that we have come to agreement on all the major points," Susan Klassen, the county's transportation and public works director, told Staff Writer Kevin McCallum.
That's a promising development, even surprising, given the inability of the same parties to settle on a single ordinance banning plastic grocery bags.
At issue is liability for the costs associated with the eventual closure of the Mecham Road landfill. For now, liability is expected to rest with Republic Services, an Arizona company picked by the county to manage the landfill. The negotiators are addressing what happens if Republic goes out of business or otherwise fails to fulfill its obligation.
Until that's sorted out, the cities are unlikely to commit to using the landfill, which, in turn, would undercut the contract with Republic, which has agreed to assume management of the county-owned landfill permanently.
There's a strong incentive for success.
Unless the landfill is expanded, it would reach its capacity this year. That would require hauling all of the county's waste to landfills elsewhere, at considerable expense.
Perhaps more important, it almost certainly would trigger the closure of the county landfill, at a cost of tens of millions of dollars. There's a massive shortfall in the fund to cover that expense, so it would fall to the county, the cities and, ultimately, the businesses and residents who send their refuse to the landfill.
It's unlikely that those costs could be postponed.
When the landfill was shut down several years ago due to concerns about its liner, the county came under pressure from regulators to close it for good. The county instead turned to Republic to secure clearance to reopen and expand the landfill for continued use.
If the deal is completed, it would provide time to set aside money to cover the costs of closing and monitoring the landfill when it finally reaches its capacity.
Preparing for closure over the long term would add about 50 cents a month to trash-collection bills in Santa Rosa and $1.16 in unincorporated areas of the county, Klassen said.
There will be other obstacles to the landfill agreement, including a lawsuit seeking to prevent the county from contracting with Republic. But it's clear that a private operator is the best way to meet the goal of handling Sonoma County's waste stream without loading it on long-haul trucks bound for landfills in other counties.
That's an idea we all can toast.