New plan to safeguard Russian River targets contamination from human and animal waste
An on-again, off-again effort by state regulators to better protect the Russian River and its tributaries against failing septic systems, livestock waste and other potential sources of bacterial contamination is in its final stages, with hopes that an action plan for the entire watershed will be approved this August and go into effect next year.
The move, controversial and closely watched in years past, could impose stricter regulations and mandatory septic system upgrades on thousands of landowners with properties near the river or its connected waterways.
Opportunities still exist for residents to weigh in on the complicated, far-reaching strategy designed to safeguard the region’s recreational hub and main source of drinking water, with bacterial threats ranging from everyday pet waste to rain-swollen sewage holding ponds and homeless encampments.
Now in its third iteration since 2015, the North Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board’s new draft action plan is out for public review and comment through 5 p.m. June 24.
The board’s staff will host a public workshop at its Santa Rosa offices on Thursday afternoon, and a public hearing will be held during the board’s regular meeting Aug. 14 and 15, when it considers adopting the plan.
The water quality control program is required under the federal Clean Water Act as well as state regulations designed to ensure that people swimming, wading, fishing or otherwise recreating in the river and tributary creeks aren’t exposed to bacteria from human or animal waste - a problem in waterways around California, state officials say.
Key concerns include aging, under-equipped and potentially faulty septic systems and cesspools installed decades ago on steep slopes with too little soil to provide adequate percolation. Testing also shows livestock grazing in close proximity to waterways is a problem in many areas.
But a wide variety of sources are believed to contribute bacteria from animal and human waste into the watershed- including swimmers themselves, who may shed bacteria in the water, said Charles Reed, a supervising engineer with the water board.
“We definitely see higher numbers on weekends when there’s a lot of folks using the water,” he said.
The 1,484-square-mile Russian River watershed already is considered impaired for pathogens, with testing showing human specific bacterial concentrations both from the river’s upper reaches in Mendocino County, in parts of the middle reach near Hopland, on lower Santa Rosa Creek, and on the lower river, according to the water quality board report.
Samples are taken weekly at 10 popular Sonoma County beaches during the summer months for testing by the county. Samples that spike above allowable levels are immediately retested for confirmation that can lead to posted warnings such as occurred during and after the July 4, 2017, weekend at Monte Rio Beach, department spokesman Rohish Lal said.
Bacteria stemming from cattle are widespread, as well, the report states.
The goal of the action plan is to establish a framework for correcting all of the problems, though the issue of household waste treatment facilities like septic systems has typically proven the most widely relevant to county residents, given their prevalence in rural areas and the high cost of repairs or replacement.
A key problem are the holes that exist in county permitting records. Water quality officials are not entirely sure who has what kind of treatment systems, as some were installed many decades ago, when local regulation and record keeping was lax.
Property owners who have installed new equipment since the 1970s, built new structures or substantially remodeled will have records on file about their waste treatment systems, but substantial unknowns exist involving older systems, said Reed and Nathan Quarles, deputy director of engineering and construction for Sonoma County.?The homeowners themselves might not even know, Quarles said.
“All they know is they flush the toilet, and nothing bubbles back in the sink, so they’re good,” he said.
The action plan establishes and applies particular assessment and reporting requirements primarily for landowners with septic systems within 600 feet of the river and other impaired water bodies. The move is designed to root out leaking, overburdened or poorly sited treatment systems to get them repaired so they no longer pose a problem.
Property owners can check maps and a list of parcels to find out if they are in that affected area. Doing so will require they provide information about the age off their system, the capacity, site properties and other information that may help gauge whether it complies with new regulations, Reed said.
Owners also must provide proof of a professional inspection at least every five years, which can be completed in conjunction with a cleaning.
Reed said about 19,000 parcels without sewer connection are in the affected area. An unknown number are undeveloped, and it’s not clear how many property owners will need to comply with the new requirements.
“The first thing we need to know is how big the magnitude of the problem is,” Reed said, “and that’s what the assessment is about. And then we can start strategizing with what to do about it.”
You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan at 707-521-5249 or firstname.lastname@example.org.