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Contaminated water found in Rohnert Park subdivision

Blaise Turek looked forward to taking a hot shower after he and his wife returned home from vacation in mid-December. But when he turned the faucet on, brownish water with a putrid stench flowed out.

“The smell was off the charts,” he said.

Almost a month later, the Tureks and more than a dozen other property owners in the Canon Manor West neighborhood just east of Rohnert Park are still dealing with fallout from contamination in their water wells.

County health officials this week revealed that 17 of 31 residential wells tested in the development south of Sonoma State University are ridden with potentially harmful bacteria, including E. coli in seven of the contaminated water sources. Besides ordering residents to discontinue using the wells, officials will be sending letters to every property owner in the 257-acre development warning them of the problem and urging precautions.

“I think it's an urgency,” said Karen Holbrook, the county's deputy health officer. “People should be aware that they are potentially drinking water that's not safe.”

More than a public health concern, the well contamination in Canon Manor West highlights longstanding disputes in several Sonoma County neighborhoods over water rights and responsibility for ensuring that the water is safe.

Holbrook on Wednesday said the consensus among county officials and those from the city of Rohnert Park - which maintains a sewer line in Canon Manor West - is that failing septic systems and surface water contamination are to blame for the well problems.

Several residents, however, accuse the county of using the current crisis as an excuse to enforce an ordinance requiring Canon Manor West residents to hook up to public water and sewer lines, abandon and destroy septic systems and to discontinue well use for domestic purposes.

Melanie Hildebrand, who lives across the street from the Tureks on Lynn Drive, pinned the blame for contamination of the private well she uses for irrigation on poor maintenance of Rohnert Park's sewer line. She said the county's effort to get people in the development hooked up to public sewer and water is “unrelated to the issue.”

Problems date to '70s

The county's ordinance, adopted in 2006, sought to resolve a decades-old battle over private well and septic system use in Canon Manor West, which is southwest of the intersection of East Cotati Avenue and Petaluma Hill Road.

As far back as 1976, excessive and elevated levels of nitrates began showing up in a few private wells. Health inspectors said the contamination likely emanated from fecal material from former chicken farms in the area.

A 2010 amendment to the ordinance described continued use of private wells and septic systems in Canon Manor West as “an immediate danger to public health.” But dozens of property owners appear to be flouting the law.

The Tureks are among those who held out. Blaise Turek said that's because the couple's well and septic system were sufficient for their use, and because no one forced the issue.

“It was perfect water and nobody ever questioned it,” he said. “Nobody.”

That's changed with the bacterial contamination. Besides putting an unwanted spotlight on residents who continue to use private wells and septic systems, it has forced some into taking quick action.

The Tureks spent $3,134 on fees to hook up to the Penngrove/Kenwood Water Co. system, plus additional out-of-pocket costs to run the line to the meter. The couple also have replaced their hot water heater, all of their faucets and the flushing mechanisms inside toilets. Still on the agenda is replacing the ice maker in the refrigerator.

“You can't get the smell out,” said Blaise Turek, a landscape contractor.

Prior to the contamination, the Tureks paid $17,500 in sewer hook-up fees. Today, that cost is about $22,500.

Blaise Turek said he'll connect to Rohnert Park's system if he is so ordered, despite his belief that the sewer line is the source of his problem.

“I'll do what's right for the community, but I think we're at a bigger risk from the sewer line running over the water table than from my septic system,” he said.

No reports of illness

The county first received a complaint about sewage odors emanating from a well Dec. 18 from a property owner on Lynn Drive. Tests of wells on two adjacent properties revealed the presence of more than 2,419 colonies of E. coli and fecal coliform in a 100-milliliter sampling of water. There are no safe levels for either bacteria. However, there have been no reports of anyone being sickened from drinking or using the water.

Rohnert Park crews who were dispatched to the neighborhood after residents reported foul-smelling water discovered a sewer line blockage running from the 1700 block of Lynn Drive to Wolf Den Plaza on East Cotati Avenue. The plaza is home to numerous restaurants and other businesses.

But city officials have discounted the blockage or problems with the sewer line as potential sources of the contamination.

“I think we've been diligent in testing our system to ensure its integrity,” said Don Schwartz, Rohnert Park's assistant city manager.

Compliance sought

The county's focus now is on public health and getting people to comply with the ordinance.

Tennis Wick, director of the county's Permit and Resource Management Department, did not return several messages this week seeking comment.

In an email he sent Monday, Wick stated that county officials are following their “normal protocol” of sending courtesy notices to property owners seeking compliance with the ordinance. He said those who fail to respond will receive a notice of a violation before the county begins the abatement process, which could include a lien against the title of the property or forced installation of public sewer and water connections.

Citing costs and the downturn in the economy, the 2010 amendment to the county's ordinance expressed a desire to give property owners more time to comply with the law. The updated rules also appeared to open the door to allowing property owners to continue using private systems, so long as they could prove they weren't a source of contamination.

The current problems may make it more difficult for affected property owners to argue that stance.

Affected streets

The county tested 17 wells on four streets: Lynn Drive, East Cotati Avenue, Weiss Lane and William Drive. All had elevated levels of fecal coliform bacteria, according to Holbrook.

She said the seven wells that tested positive for E. coli were spread out on the four streets and were not concentrated in a single area. The bacteria can cause severe abdominal distress or be fatal depending on the strain.

About 40 property owners in Canon Manor West have yet to hook up to public water, according to Karen Ball, general manager of the Penngrove/Kenwood Water Co. Those who live on the east side of the development have all hooked up, she said.

Ball made the case that property owners have had plenty of time to comply with the order. But she also said the county has done nothing to enforce its own law.

“It's a big sticky wicket,” she said.

The water company draws from two wells about a mile east of Canon Manor to supply water to the development. The wells, which are more than 400-feet deep, pull from a different aquifer than that running beneath the homes.

Ball said private wells in Canon Manor West, which draw from the 261-square-mile Santa Rosa Plain watershed, are much shallower, making them more susceptible to contamination.

“Everything on the surface is probably a contaminant, if you think about it,” she said.

You can reach Staff Writer Derek Moore at 521-5336 or derek.moore@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @deadlinederek.

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