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Efforts to clean up Russian River could impact rural septic systems

North Coast water quality officials are seeking public input on efforts to reduce contamination of the Russian River watershed through a plan that’s likely to have broad impacts on rural residents dependent on septic systems for waste disposal.

Studies indicate the river and its tributary creeks are polluted with bacteria from human and animal feces traced to a variety of sources - from dairies to homeless encampments, wastewater treatment facilities to beachgoers using bushes for toilets, according to staff from the North Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board.

But longtime concerns about older, on-site septic systems that may be permitting untreated waste to reach local waterways means remediation strategies will doubtless have implications for rural homeowners with septic systems, especially in lower Russian River communities like Monte Rio and Camp Meeker, said board Executive Officer Matt St. John.

“We’re still evaluating what improvements are needed, but I think what we can say at this point is that (in) areas with a high density of on-site septic systems, we’re seeing significant contribution of fecal indicator bacteria,” St. John said.

Stretches of the Russian River in Healdsburg and from Guerneville to Monte Rio, as well as Santa Rosa, Atascadero, Dutch Bill creeks and an unnamed tributary near Healdsburg’s Fitch Mountain, are all listed as impaired waters under the federal Clean Water Act, and have been since 2002, because of high levels of bacterial concentration indicative of fecal contamination, the water quality board said.

The board is developing an action plan that it expects to complete next year. It will hold its first public meeting on the subject Thursday evening to begin engaging the public on finding solutions.

Among those likely to have a stake in the discussion, the board said, are septic system owners in unincorporated Sonoma and Mendocino counties, homeless and farmworker housing advocates, ranchers and farmers with large domesticated animals, and managers of publicly owned treatment works and municipal stormwater systems.

Of course, anyone who uses the river and its tributaries recreationally should have a keen interest, too, they said.

“Based on the preliminary results of our assessment, there’s human-sourced pathogen fecal matter pretty much everywhere we look,” St. John said. “It’s startling, but true.”

Representatives for the water quality board have been meeting with what staffers call “key stakeholders” for about a year and a half, talking about strategies for reducing contamination.

There’s a “need for controls across land-use types,” St. John said.

But the issue of septic systems is potentially touchy, judging from the repeated outcry with which Sonoma County residents greeted efforts by the California Water Resources Board in recent years to revise septic system regulations and required inspections and upgrades of failing residential systems.

The water quality board has yet to craft performance standards for local septic systems but will be working to develop those with the counties, which will implement them, St. John said.

“There’s no question that there’s going to be a need to evaluate the performance of individual systems,” he said.

Thursday’s meeting runs from 5 to 8 p.m. at the Regional Water Board Office, 5550 Skylane Blvd., Suite A, Santa Rosa.

More information is available at www.waterboards.ca.gov/northcoast/water_issues/programs/tmdls.

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

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