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Major manure cleanup in northwest Santa Rosa (w/video)

At a former dairy northwest of Santa Rosa, not far from the banks of Windsor Creek, the world’s largest pooper scoopers are hard at work.

In what has got to be one of the world’s dirtiest jobs, excavators and bulldozers are clearing two massive lagoons of untold tons of sloppy brown sludge.

One dozer, half-sunk in the muck last week, pushed load after load of the stinky ooze toward a spot where an excavator, perched precariously on the berm above, scooped it up with a huge shovel, swiveled 180 degrees and deposited it on a nearby field to dry.

For decades dairyman Marvin Nunes temporarily stored manure from up to 600 prized Holsteins in these two ponds at the northern end of his 177-acre Ocean View Dairy, nestled between the Charles M. Schulz Sonoma County Airport and the Russian River.

Now the messy cleanup operation is underway, funded not by the property owners, but by the ratepayers in Santa Rosa, Rohnert Park, Sebastopol and Cotati.

Santa Rosa’s Board of Public Utilities last month agreed to pay $330,000 to help the new owners, a vineyard development firm lead by a Kendall Jackson winery executive, remove the years of accumulated waste material from the ponds.

With such massive reservoirs of potential pollution so close to Windsor Creek, regulators have long been concerned that future floodwaters could inundate the property, spilling huge volumes of nitrogen and phosphorus into the Laguna de Santa Rosa, the most impaired water body on the North Coast.

In exchange for funding the cleanup, the city of Santa Rosa, which runs the Laguna Treatment Plant about 10 miles to the south, will receive mitigation credits for the project. The city will be able to use those credits to avoid stiff penalties from regulators if it pollutes the Laguna in the future.

“It’s a win-win. He gets the property cleaned up and we get the credits,” said David Guhin, the city’s director of utilities.

Once the manure from the dairy dries, it will be transported to a local composting operation.

The dairy cleanup is the latest and most expensive project to date in an innovative program taking a holistic approach toward removing sources of pollution from the Laguna de Santa Rosa watershed.

Much like carbon-credits aim to offset the environmental harm of one activity, such as air travel, by funding environmentally beneficial projects elsewhere, such as construction of wind farms, the city’s “nutrient offset program” allows it to compensate for the damage its pollution causes to the Laguna by cleaning up or preventing pollution into other parts of the watershed.

The effort has already paid for the improvement of roads at Pepperwood Preserve high in the Mayacamas in an effort to reduce sediment into Porter Creek. It has also funded changes to how manure is managed at Beretta dairy southwest of Santa Rosa to limit runoff into Roseland Creek.

But the cleanup of the former Ocean View Dairy is the city’s most ambitious one to date, promising to generate five times more credits than the previous two projects combined, according to Rita Miller, an engineer in the city’s utilities department.

Depending on how much material is actually removed from Ocean View’s ponds, the city stands to gain credit for between 22,500 and 27,500 pounds of phosphorus. For every pound of phosphorus removed, the city will receive one credit.

Those credits will give the city some important breathing room from regulators. The North Coast Water Quality Control Board has ordered the city not to add to the phosphorus levels in the Laguna.

While the city recycles about 98 percent of its treated wastewater, most of it through a 42-mile pipeline to The Geysers geothermal power plants, the Llano Road treatment plant still needs to discharge to the Laguna in a typical year.

Over the past several years, largely because of the dry weather and aggressive recycling programs, the city hasn’t needed to discharge anything into the Laguna.

But it historically has been forced to release treated wastewater during heavy rains. This adds nitrogen and phosphorus to the aquatic environment, triggering fast growth of aquatic plant life and reducing the oxygen levels in the water.

The low oxygen levels, excessive sediment and high summer water temperatures all combine to create an inhospitable environment for aquatic wildlife. Juvenile cold-water fish such as threatened steelhead trout and endangered coho salmon are particularly vulnerable to such conditions.

While regulators study how much phosphorus and nitrogen the Laguna can safety handle, they are requiring the city to adhere to a “zero net load” policy for phosphorus. That means if the treatment plant released 10,000 pounds of phosphorus in a year, it would have to prevent the same amount from entering other parts of the watershed.

The city has challenged the no-net load policy for phosphorus with the state water board, believing it unfair and scientifically unjustifiable. While that appeal is pending, it has been scrambling to comply. It has tweaked operations at the plant to cut the phosphorus levels in its discharge in half, Guhin said.

It has also continued to search for new offset projects. The Ocean View project almost never happened. An effort by the city to purchase the dairy fell through in 2013.

Later in the year, a vineyard development group led by Jackson Family Wines’ chief operating officer Hugh Reimers snapped up the land for $3.2 million, well below the $5.25 million listing price. The 177-acre property is estimated to have 110 acres of potential vineyard land.

Broker Michael Crain represented Nunes and Reimers’ group, Krasilsa Pacific Farms, in the sale. It was clear at the time of sale that the ponds would have to be cleaned, Crain said.

Because of the city’s previous interest in purchasing the land, the buyers knew it was possible they could get some mitigation money from the city for cleanup, but it wasn’t clear how much, Crain said. Reimers could not be reached to discuss the project.

After the sale to the vineyard group went through, the city went back to the water board and confirmed that if it paid for the removal of all the manure in the ponds, it would receive 22,521 credits over four years.

The deal with Krasilsa calls for two payments of $165,000, one after the work is complete, another on Jan. 15, 2015.

Why ratepayers should have to foot the bill for the cleanup at all is something Alan Levine can’t understand.

The director of the Coast Action Group of Point Arena agrees the ponds are a “very significant threat” to the health of the Laguna. He also supports the nutrient offset program in theory. But he opposed their use for the dairy, arguing that credits should not be granted for cleanups already required under existing regulations.

He argues that regulators should have required Nunes to clean up the dairy years ago. By extension, he thinks the new owners should inherit that same responsibility.

“Why should the public pay for it?” Levine said last week. “They made the mess. They should have to clean it up.”

Nunes, who is now retired and was forced to file bankruptcy following the sale, disputes the characterization of his former ranch as a “mess.” The ponds were clay-lined to prevent infiltration to groundwater and the berms closely monitored to ensure their integrity, he said. The ponds were also cleaned out at his own expense every eight to 12 years, Nunes said.

Water quality regulators did order Nunes to clean-up a portion of his property in 1994 after they concluded runoff from a heifer barn and watering trough had fouled Windsor Creek. Nunes disputed that claim and still does. Nevertheless he agreed to make changes to the dairy, such as repairing gutters and moving some heifers away from the creek.

Regulators, however, still considered the dairy a potential problem. Matt St. John, executive director of the water board, says the board supported the credits for the project because it ensures the pollutants will be removed before heavy rains wash them into the Laguna.

“From the regional board’s standpoint, it’s a source of pollution that is ongoing,” St. John said. “The city is able to provide the funds to address the pollution, and the public benefits because less nitrogen and phosphorus is getting into the Laguna.”

In in the absence of an offset program, the board could go after the new landowner and force him to clean up the property, St. John said. But the reality is that could involve attorneys and time and expense, all of which is sidestepped with the existing partnership, he said.

“They are solving an existing problem now,” St. John said.

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EDITOR’S NOTE: This story has been updated to include reaction from Marvin Nunes, who initially could not be reached for comment.

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