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Bucolic Valley Ford faces water problems linked to dairies

VALLEY FORD - Restaurants in bucolic Valley Ford serve up local seafood and farm-raised beef. But don't ask for local water.

Anything that makes it to the table in one of this town's several eateries is trucked in from Petaluma because water from Valley Ford's main well has been deemed unfit to drink.

That could soon change. Officials in the town of about 125 people near the Sonoma Coast hope to complete a multiyear effort this fall to pipe in clean water from a new well.

It will put an end to mounting transportation costs and delivery problems connected to winter storms.

“It's a bummer to have to truck in water,” said Geoff Diamond, manager of Estero Café on Highway 1, as he tended a small breakfast crowd Thursday morning. “It would certainly be an asset to the rest of the town to have clean water coming through.”

Some in Valley Ford - a longtime dairy town with a cluster of tourist-friendly businesses including the iconic Dinucci's Italian restaurant - say the change can't come soon enough. Restaurants are barred from serving well water but residents still get it when they turn on the tap.

Warnings of high nitrate levels associated with surrounding dairy ranches have prompted many to drink, cook and even bathe with bottled water. The State Water Resources Control Board issued a warning last month that pregnant women and infants younger than 6 months should not consume the well water. Additionally, the warning cautioned against boiling, freezing or filtering the water.

Aaron Bramham, who rents a house from the Dinucci's owners just off the highway, says his water has a faint yellow or orange color that gets darker after storm-related power failures. Showering in it has caused rashes, he said.

“Right now our water is pee yellow,” said Bramham, 47, who works as a security guard. “Sometimes it is orange. Other times it's gray, slimy, fishy stuff.”

He and his girlfriend spend about $2,000 a year buying drinking water from Costco. He's considering moving if the problem isn't solved soon.

“Most of the town is on the well,” he said. “It's not up to state code.”

Like other restaurateurs, Estero Café owner Samantha Ramey has her water trucked in weekly from Petaluma, about 25 miles away. It is stored in a more than 30,000-gallon tank out back that's connected to all her plumbing.

Annual costs top $5,000, she said.

Ramey, who lives in town, said she uses filtered well water at her home. She doesn't mind it but said there are times when it is sulfury.

“It doesn't taste very pleasant,” she said.

Valley Ford isn't the only small town in Sonoma County with water quality problems. Many community wells across the region suffer from some level of contamination and must be monitored, said Mark Zastrow, a state certified water tester who checks more than two dozen wells from Petaluma to Cloverdale.

He said Valley Ford's well, drilled decades ago in the center of a cow pasture, is under the highest level of scrutiny. It is treated with chlorine and tested daily. In December, samples from the well before treatment contained E. coli bacteria, he said. Some E. coli strains can cause severe abdominal cramps, bloody diarrhea and vomiting.

“You can use it for laundry, to wash dishes and to shower,” said Zastrow, who visited the well at the end of School Street on Thursday. “You're not going to want to drink it.”

Zastrow said local water board official have located a new, clean well at the north end of town and are looking for funds to build delivery infrastructure. So far, about $352,000 has been spent on planning and design engineering, a state drinking water regulator said.

Final project costs were not available.

A water board member contacted Thursday said the new well would come online by fall.

“If everything goes well,” said Brandon Guenther, who also owns Rocker Oysterfellers and the Valley Ford Hotel.

But others maintain the water is just fine. Don Wagner, who also sits on the water board and whose family owns Dinucci's, said he's been drinking it for years with no ill effects.

“I've been drinking out of a garden hose since I was a kid,” said Wagner, 53, as he sipped from a hose Thursday. “It don't bother me.”

You can reach Staff Writer Paul Payne at 707-568-5312 or paul.payne@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @ppayne.

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