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A citizens group is taking on the daunting task of trying to solve the sewer problems plaguing Monte Rio, a historic crossroads burg that is in danger of disappearing.

"The downtown commercial area, it is definitely a ghost town," said Dan Fein, coordinator of the Monte Rio Wastewater Task Group. "It would be more of a ghost town, but we tore down some of the buildings."

The town greets visitors with a sign arching over the roadway that reads "Welcome to Monte Rio, Vacation Wonderland."

But what was once a bustling downtown with some 30 businesses has dwindled to a handful, excluding the remains resorts.

You can still get a cup of coffee at the Rio Theater and groceries at Bartlett's Market, or venture just outside downtown to Mama Java.

"It's sad, it is disappointing for such a great little community, there are a lot of real nice people around here," said Crystal Withers, co-owner of Mama Java, which is near the Northwood Golf Course. "I have a nice little nook here. We are connecting into the other buildings, there is a barber next door."

It all goes back to the septic issue, said Kathleen Kane, executive director of the Sonoma County Community Development Commission.

"The downtown has definitely seen businesses closed and buildings demolished and not rebuilt due to a large extent a lack of a wastewater disposal system," Kane said.

The latest casualty is The Pink Elephant, a popular bar and restaurant that closed in November after its owner decided replacing the septic system was too costly.

"We received complaints of that restaurant-bar and its on-site system," said John Short, a senior engineer for the North Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board. "We were not responsible for closing them, but we were investigating them."

The issue in Monte Rio are septic systems that are old, inadequate or failing.

"There are conditions in Monte Rio that are unique as compared to other communities," Short said. "It is not good siting for on-site septic systems . . . small lots, close to waterways, a lot of buildings are old and were sited without much consideration where a proper septic system leach field should be."

Last year, there were 18 instances in which water quality in the Russian River in Monte Rio didn't meet health standards.

"We have had to post beaches. We have had to warn folks of the risks if they choose to swim in the area," Short said. "It has kept some people away from the beaches and probably created an economic impact."

Sonoma County has also declared Monte Rio a "non-waiver" area for septic systems, which acts as a building moratorium. If a building burns, it cannot be rebuilt.

"We are driving an old truck down the road and we can drive it for some time, but at some point the wheels fall off," Fein said. "It will be slow process, individual failure by individual failure, individual fire by individual fire, a slow erosion. Over the next 50 years, most of us will be in trouble in one way or another."

Monte Rio residents had approved a sewer system in 2003 at a cost of $11 million, but when the price soared to $20 million, the county of Sonoma backed out.

Now, the citizens group is gathering information and will try to find solutions that could include using new technology for individual systems, building a community system or connecting to a nearby sewer system.

"It's sad and there are mixed feelings in the community," Fein said. "There are some people who like it quiet here; we are not 100 percent saying we want to get back to the glory days of old."

The effort is expected to take 18 months and is being undertaken under the auspices of the Russian River Redevelopment Agency, which could provide some funding. Fein said there are also grants available for small communities to deal with wastewater issues.

"We want to preserve it. What that looks like is a question, but everyone would say the same thing, we want to preserve it," Fein said.