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State water quality regulators have tightened environmental restrictions on Santa Rosa's wastewater treatment plant in an effort to protect the health of the Laguna de Santa Rosa over the objections of city officials who questioned whether the tougher regulations are justified.

The new five-year permit governing the city's discharges of treated wastewater into the Laguna contain a controversial prohibition on the release of phosphorus into the Laguna, which is listed as an impaired waterway.

Phosphorus is a nutrient common in fertilizers and wastewater that when released into waterways can promote the excessive growth of algae and other plants and lead to low oxygen levels that kill fish and other aquatic life.

The new permit extends a rule known as "no net loading," which effectively requires the city to find ways to remove as much phosphorus as it puts into the Laguna.

"I think this permit is another step to protect and improve the water quality for the Laguna," said David Noren, chairman of the North Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board.

Noren commended the city for its work to divert 98 percent of its wastewater from the Laguna, one of the state's largest wetland areas, through industry leading recycling projects such as aggressive agricultural irrigation and the $205 million Geysers pipeline. He called it "absolutely astounding" for a system of Santa Rosa's size to at times not discharge a drop of wastewater into the Laguna, as happened in 2009 and so far this year.

But he and the other members of the board Thursday unanimously agreed the tougher rules were necessary to further protect a waterway that simply cannot handle any more phosphorus.

"Based on the science and data we have, it's appropriate for us to hold that line," Noren said.

City officials objected to the new requirement for phosphorus, arguing there is no connection between the plant's limited discharges during periods of heavy rain and the algae blooms in the Laguna.

They instead requested the board set a numeric limit on the amount of phosphorus the plant could discharge under the permit.

"We feel like we made a good case for why a limit makes sense," Santa Rosa utilities director David Guhin said. "We are disappointed that that was not the direction the board decided to go."

If the board established a "reasonable, defensible limit," then the city could work toward achieving that goal. But the "no net loading" requirement creates uncertainty about the offset costs the city might face, Guhin said.

"We just want to be very careful that we do the right things with our ratepayers' money and make sure that it has the biggest benefit possible," Guhin said.

The city and regional board have been working on the new permit for two years. In preparation for the new regulations, the city has already spent $1.5 million trying to establish a program that would give it credit for projects that prevent phosphorus and nitrogen from reaching the Laguna from other parts of the watershed, such as rural roads and dairies.

Such credits would be used to offset any discharges that the plant is still sometimes required to make to the Laguna during wet years.

But the program has suffered several setbacks, including disagreements with the water board staff over what kinds of projects qualify and an approved project to better manage dairy manure that has been held up by environmental regulations protecting the endangered tiger salamander.

Read all of the PD's fire coverage here

Aside from the challenges in off-setting its discharges, the city argued that it is not responsible for the environmental problems facing the Laguna.

Officials noted that when it does discharge, the nutrients are highly diluted and leave the Laguna within hours.

Dave Smith, the city's long-time wastewater permit consultant, also argued that there is no "sufficient linkage" between city's discharges and algae levels, noting that algae levels have increased even as the discharges have dropped dramatically.

"We've eliminated our load from the upper Laguna, and water quality conditions have not improved," Smith said.

That argument, however, fell largely on deaf ears.

The federal Environmental Protection Agency strongly supported the more restrictive permit, calling it a "key component in restoring water quality in the Laguna," EPA regulator Amelia Whitson told the board.

She said allowing the city to add any amount of additional nutrients to the waterway would "not be scientifically or legally defensible."

Guhin stressed that the city's goals of protecting the environment were closely aligned with those of the local and state board. He said the vast majority of the other issues the city had with its permit were resolved by working with board staff.

Another area of disagreement involved how to limit the incidents of runoff from the city's recycled water program. The new permit proposed additional reporting requirements board staff said were necessary to show compliance with state regulations and to provide transparency to the public.

But the city argued the additional regulations were burdensome and would make it harder to expand the recycled water use program.

City Water Resources Planner Jennifer Burke told the board that the program is well managed and the city aggressively investigates leaks.

"There is a great incentive for all of our recyclers to be as efficient as possible," Burke said. "This is not cheap water. It's a very valuable resource."

But Brenda Adelman, chairwoman of the Russian River Watershed Protection Committee, urged the board to retain the new reporting regulations for the recycled water irrigation systems.

Adelman's group is a nonprofit environmental group based in Guerneville that has long advocated for the health of area waterways. She said she combed through board records and found dozens of examples of runoff from properties using recycled water for irrigation, particularly in Rohnert Park.

"I think a lot of work needs to be done in tightened up the program so we can be sure that water is not ending up in the Laguna," Adelman said.

(You can reach Staff Writer Kevin McCallum at 521-5207 or kevin.mccallum@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @citybeater.)

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