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Grape growers could alleviate Occidental’s wastewater issues

Occidental’s embattled wastewater treatment system needs a multimillion-dollar upgrade completed within three years, and nearby grape growers are likely part of the solution.

If that plan - expected to cost $5 million to $6 million and bump up rates for the sewer district’s roughly 100 customers - doesn’t work out, the small west county community’s wastewater might be trucked out of ?the area for treatment, officials said.

The proposed solution, including improvements to the existing treatment plant on Occidental Road and a pipeline carrying wastewater to a vineyard on Morelli Lane, will be reviewed at a public meeting at 6 p.m. Jan. 8 at the Union Hotel in Occidental.

Residents will have a chance to comment on the potential impacts of the project as part of the determination of whether it will require a full environmental impact report.

Because the proposed project would be on property already used by the system and on ?county roads, the county hopes to issue a “negative declaration” and avoid the time and expense of a full report, said Cordel ?Stillman, Sonoma County ?Water Agency chief deputy engineer.

Occidental’s system, one of eight operated by the Water Agency, faces a Jan. 31, 2018 state deadline to stop holding treated wastewater in a pond next to the treatment plant, used as a storage reservoir since 1977.

A state order issued two years ago prohibits wastewater storage in Graham’s Pond because it is at the headwaters of Dutch Bill Creek, a tributary to the Russian River, and also limits discharge into the creek to winter months and only with wastewater given tertiary treatment, the highest level of sewage processing.

Three years might seem a long time to get it done, but Stillman said that environmental review, right-of-way acquisition and permitting are all steps in the process that pile months onto the timeline.

Another obstacle is the cost of the project, estimated at up to $4.5 million for construction with an additional $1.5 million for environmental review, design and other costs.

Both the Water Agency, which subsidizes the Occidental system’s operation out of its own general fund, and the small district, which covers just 55 acres, are hard-pressed to absorb ?any added costs, Stillman said. The subsidy this year - for operating costs and work on ?the project - is $500,000, and is expected to fluctuate from $350,000 to $800,000 over the next decade.

Occidental’s sewer rates are the highest of the eight county-operated systems at $1,899 a year per equivalent single-family dwelling, well ahead of the second-highest rate of $1,297 for the Russian River district.

The Water Agency is “beating the bushes” for financial help, such as a state loan, to minimize the impact on ratepayers, Stillman said.

If the costs of the proposed project run too high, the agency may “back off” and go to a plan that involves trucking out wastewater to treatment elsewhere. Engineering work is underway, and the project costs should be known in six to eight months, he said.

The proposed project involves upgrading the plant at 14445 Occidental Road, adjacent to the Druids Occidental Cemetery, to tertiary treatment and piping the effluent along Graton and Harrison Grade roads and Morelli Lane to the edge of grape grower Steve Dutton’s 43-acre vineyard on Morelli Lane.

Dutton, who trucks in up to 20,000 gallons of water per day to irrigate his vines in summer, would build a reservoir to store the recycled water on his property, Stillman said.

The Water Agency hopes to find other growers along the pipeline route to take more of the water, he said. If enough agricultural users sign up, the system would not need to discharge tertiary treated wastewater into Dutch Bill Creek during the winter, the ideal arrangement known as “zero discharge,” he said.

You can reach Staff Writer ?Guy Kovner at 521-5457 or? guy.kovner@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @guykovner.

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