In bid to clean Russian River, water regulators adopt strict plan for Sonoma County septic systems
North Coast water quality regulators have signed off on a sweeping new plan that aims to curb the threat of human waste entering the Russian River by phasing out failing and substandard septic systems, viewed for decades as a prime source of pollution in the sprawling watershed.
Years in the making, the regulations affect a vast swath of Sonoma County - properties without sewer service from Cloverdale to Cotati and from Santa Rosa to Jenner. For the first time, affected landowners will be subject to compulsory inspections and mandatory repair or replacement of septic systems found to be faulty or outdated, at an estimated cost of up to $114 million, according to county officials.
The new rules take effect next year and will apply to an estimated 8,000 to 10,000 parcels without sewer service. Once the rules kick in, landowners will have 15 years to comply.
The highest concentration of affected property owners exist in the river’s lower reaches, where contamination from fecal bacteria has long been an open issue, but where officials worry that poorer communities will face the heaviest burden complying with the measures. Upgrades to an individual septic system can cost tens of thousands of dollars, and no pot of money currently exists to help defray landowner costs.
Local representatives, while not standing in the way of the measures, said outside financial support for the overhaul will be needed. North Coast water quality officials pledged to work with Sonoma County to pursue state, federal and private funding to bolster the cleanup effort.
“I’m very concerned that if the enforcement comes before the funding, people are going to be left terrified and without any way to come into compliance,” Supervisor Lynda Hopkins, who represents the west county, told the North Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board during its meeting Wednesday.
The board’s previous attempts to enact regulations targeting failing waste collection systems along the river and its tributaries have broken down largely under withering public opposition and objections that the enhanced requirements were applied too broadly.
But now, in the third round of rulemaking, with a plan rewritten and refined over the past five years, authorities have amassed records and testing showing signs of human fecal contamination in streams near where the new measures would take effect. The targeted areas span large areas of the watershed outside of local cities; inside those boundaries, most properties are connected to sewer service.
The sources of pollution, officials say, could be any number of things - from homeless encampments to heavy beach use, stormwater run-off to sewage holding ponds. Winter season spikes suggest rainstorms and runoff play an important role.
But in certain areas of the watershed, particularly along the lower Russian River in what were once largely summer communities, high concentrations of cesspools and outdated septic tanks still exist. Many were built where there is insufficient soil depth above groundwater to completely filter out pathogens or they were installed on lots that are too small or steep, water regulators say.
Water samples collected where development is dense suggest some of the waste treatment systems contribute to contamination, officials said. It’s these areas where water quality regulators hope to see any necessary corrective action take place.
“We have a built environment that we would probably never do today in the density that’s here,” said David Noren, a Sebastopol resident and a longtime member of the North Coast water board, which is based in Santa Rosa. “And so we’re looking at trying to retrofit, through a program of implementation here, to retrofit and make better a wastewater collection and treatment system, whether it be collectively or individually. And that’s a tall order, no doubt about it.”
With its headwaters in Mendocino County, the Russian River supplies drinking water to over 600,000 people, while bolstering irrigation supplies for farms, sustaining wildlife, and serving as a popular destination for generations of visitors, from fishermen to paddlers and sunbathers.
But the water body has suffered under the pressures of urban and rural development, dam building and the heavier-handed legacies of logging, mining and farming that take a toll to this day.
It remains impaired in the eyes of water quality regulators because of problems not only with bacterial contamination, but also excessive sediment loads and high water temperatures. The new regulations were needed, officials said, to address the bacteria issue and comply with state and federal laws governing water standards for recreational use.