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Russian River bacteria cleanup plan

More information and documentation is available on the North Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board website here

North Coast water regulators are taking another run at a comprehensive program to prevent bacterial contamination of the Russian River, one that includes provisions likely to have significant impacts for thousands of homeowners dependent on aging septic systems.

The proposed action plan aims to keep human and animal fecal waste out of the watershed and prevent waterborne disease. It touches on sources ranging from pet waste to dirty diapers, dairy ponds to homeless encampments, municipal waste treatment systems to recycled effluent used in irrigation.

But requirements for repair or replacement of faulty and substandard individual wastewater disposal systems are likely to prove hot topics, if history is any indication.

Regular inspections for septic systems within 600 feet of the Russian River or tributary watersheds may prove controversial, as well.

Public displeasure over a “heavy-handed” approach to regulation of individual septic systems and other onsite wastewater treatment systems derailed the last attempt to define how the North Coast Regional Water Quality Control District would go about improving the river’s water quality.

The district board encountered so much dissatisfaction two years ago that it suspended consideration of draft regulations and decided to start over.

“We realized we needed to go back and rethink our approach,” senior environmental scientist Alydda Manglesdorf said.

But under the federal Clean Water Act, the state and the regional boards are required to address evidence of seasonal and episodic fecal waste pollution in a river widely used for recreation and thus posing a risk to human health, officials said.

Monte Rio Beach on the lower Russian River was closed for a week earlier this summer after a spike in contaminants, including total coliform levels — which indicates possible fecal contamination — amid and after the busy July 4 holiday. No specific source for the excessive contaminants has been pinpointed.

But evidence indicates failing and substandard onsite waste treatment systems contribute to the general problem, so they have to be addressed somehow, said Charles Reed, a supervising engineer with the North Coast Water Quality Control District.

The draft plan focuses on onsite systems located in a defined zone, including parcels that are within 600 feet of the main stem of the Russian River or within 600 feet of one of its mapped tributaries where parcel density is greater than 50 parcels per square mile.

If the plan is approved, the district would use surveys, records, outreach and inspections to conduct an initial assessment to determine which properties may have a substandard system or one at risk of failing. Owners who need to take corrective action would be notified and would need to get a county permit for repairs or replacement systems.

Additional treatment components may be required on properties where effluent dispersal occurs within 100 feet of a stream or river, or in other, defined special cases involving high-volume flows.

But during a public workshop Thursday before the water quality board, Reed acknowledged, like others before him, that some landowners will be challenged to bring their wastewater systems up to snuff, given high costs and site constraints like small parcels and steep slopes.

A standard septic system requires room for a watertight tank where sewage is separated and treated and a leach field where the liquid effluent can be released into the subsurface soil to slowly filter out contaminants.

In Monte Rio, for instance, “there are no leach fields, hardly,” lifelong resident Lee Torr told the board Thursday. “You have such substandard lots.”

Lower river communities between Forestville and Jenner have some of the highest concentrations of older, nonconforming wastewater systems, along with the Fitch Mountain area near Healdsburg, according to the county.

Commenting on the plan proposed two years ago, the county cited estimated upgrade costs of $15,000 to $20,000 per unit, and said replacement systems would run between $35,000 and $50,000, accounting for tens of millions of dollars in potential liability.

County and regional board personnel already are working on grant applications and other efforts to identify potential funding sources in advance of finalizing corrective regulations in hopes the problem isn’t too overwhelming.

In one joint pilot project, the county and regional board staff are hoping to win a state grant for planning and construction of a wastewater solution for Monte Rio, Villa Grande, Northwood and Camp Meeker, Reed said.

But concerns about cost were evident in public comments at Thursday’s meeting.

“The communities are not prepared for this,” Forestville resident Sarah Yardley said.

Villa Grande resident and real estate professional Kyla Brooke said water quality is a priority for residents, within reason

“People really want to do the right thing,” Brooke said. “It’s really an issue of money, and it’s also an issue of public education.”

The district board will hold a second public workshop on the so-called Russian River Watershed Pathogen Total Maximum Daily Load plan in September.

Public comments on the plan will be accepted through Sept. 29, with a public workshop and possible adoption expected during the board’s Dec. 12-13 meeting.

You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan at 707-521-5249 or mary.callahan@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @MaryCallahanB.

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