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Plan targeting faulty septic systems in parts of Russian River watershed revised, finalized

Priority areas for septic system inspection and corrective action where needed

Within priority areas subject to what’s known as the Advanced Protection Management Program, or APMP, property owners in 10 sub-watersheds with septic systems within 600 feet of a mapped stream or river or within 200 feet of a seasonal or ephemeral stream must have their systems inspected every five years and take needed corrective action within 15 years. If they are participating in a collaborative, community solution, they have 20 years to take action.

Affected sub-watersheds include:

Brooks Creek (Russian River)

Dutch Bill Creek (Russian River)

Green Valley Creek

Lower Laguna de Santa Rosa

Upper Laguna de Santa Rosa

Lower Santa Rosa Creek

Porter Creek (Mark West Creek)

Porter Creek (Russian River)

West Slough (Dry Creek)

Willow Creek (Russian River)

The priority boundaries exclude outer Windsor and Mendocino County in part due to insufficient data about pathogen content in the watershed for those areas.

Source: North Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board

Thousands of property owners in the Russian River watershed will soon be accountable for ensuring their septic systems operate properly through five-year inspections aimed at controlling bacterial contamination from human waste.

The new requirement is part of a controversial plan approved by water quality regulators this week. It was the fourth version of the plan to be considered, and it amends sweeping two-year-old regulations intended to keep human and animal waste out of local waterways.

The plan, approved unanimously by the North Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board, affects thousands of property owners in designated priority areas along the main stem and certain tributaries.

Property owners with septic systems within 600 feet of the river or mapped streams or within 200 feet of ephemeral streams in those areas must now have their equipment inspected every five years and take corrective action, if warranted, within 15 years.

The plan still must be approved by the California State Water Board, likely next year, and submitted to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

But once in effect, required inspections are expected to identify a substantial number of deficits among the old and aging septic systems and leach fields located in rural areas of Sonoma County.

Many of the systems were installed decades ago on small lots and steep terrain where conditions are insufficient to allow for safe treatment and effluent dispersal, officials say.

Residences in some of these communities were built as summer or vacation homes, where systems may not be adequate to handle full-time occupancy or where the passage of time simply means equipment has degraded.

The result is a hefty bill for affected landowners. One county estimate in 2019 found it could cost between $81 million and $114 million over time for inspections, upgrades and replacements of waste treatment equipment. What’s more, many river communities are economically disadvantaged.

County and regional officials already are exploring potential funding sources and hope the federal infrastructure bill passed last month may offer help.

Sonoma Water also is leading a state-grant-funded pilot project exploring potential community solutions for Monte Rio and neighboring Villa Grand in hopes of finding efficient, economical models that could be replicated elsewhere.

Members of the water quality board acknowledged the regulation would create financial burdens for those whose properties are in 10 of 43 established sub-watersheds in the Russian River region.

Trinity County representative Kelli Grant, for instance, described having to replace her septic system with a specially engineered one because of steep slopes that would not accommodate a standard one.

Funding, said board Chairman Greg Giusti, “is the key to the whole thing. Any solution that doesn’t involve assistance is going to fail.”

Thursday’s 4-0 vote (board member Shaunna McCovey, of McKinleyville, was absent) concludes years of discussion dating to as early as 2002, when segments of the river were first listed for excess pathogens under the federal Clean Water Act, given the river’s heavy use for swimming and other forms of recreation.

The Russian River watershed, which runs through Mendocino and Sonoma counties, supplies water to cities and towns along the river as well as to cities and districts served by the Sonoma Water Agency.
The Russian River watershed, which runs through Mendocino and Sonoma counties, supplies water to cities and towns along the river as well as to cities and districts served by the Sonoma Water Agency.

A sweeping plan developed since addresses a whole host of reasons that animal and human waste find their way into the watershed, including dairies and other livestock operations, overflow and runoff from sewage holding ponds and other wastewater treatment facilities, storm water, homeless encampments, pet waste and recreational use. Efforts to control runoff from various uses and sources also have been outlined.

But the issue of individual, on-site waste treatment has proved the most challenging through four iterations of dense policy papers and draft plans that provoked public misgivings and even outrage, given their breadth and likely expense, particularly with the early versions around 2015, when special priority was focused watershed-wide.

A coalition of stakeholders from Healdburg’s Fitch Mountain area to Monte Rio and Villa Grande on the lower Russian River has continued to mount a robust and well-articulated challenge to the very underpinnings of the pathogen impairment.

They argue that the regional board has used unproven and discredited metrics to supply flawed evidence of human waste in the watershed without any proof that septic systems might be a contributing source.

One critic, Fitch Mountain resident Pat Abercrombie, raised the specter of litigation, if the board enacted over-broad regulations “without the data to back it up.”

Water board staff disputed the arguments, however, and noted that many local priority areas would be subject to far more stringent state monitoring and disinfection standards were there no new regional regulation.

They also noted that peer-reviewed data were used to support already approved portions of the action plan and its underlying policies. And they said revised data assessment conducted in 2020 to address public comments and questions from the state water board actually enlarged the priority area slightly, rather than narrowing it down.

“I can see people’s concern,” Grant said. “I also am proud that the water board has always understood that the North Board Region has the best water in the entire state of California, and it’s much easier to keep water clean than it is to clean it up.”

You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan at 707-521-5249 or mary.callahan@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @MaryCallahanB.

Priority areas for septic system inspection and corrective action where needed

Within priority areas subject to what’s known as the Advanced Protection Management Program, or APMP, property owners in 10 sub-watersheds with septic systems within 600 feet of a mapped stream or river or within 200 feet of a seasonal or ephemeral stream must have their systems inspected every five years and take needed corrective action within 15 years. If they are participating in a collaborative, community solution, they have 20 years to take action.

Affected sub-watersheds include:

Brooks Creek (Russian River)

Dutch Bill Creek (Russian River)

Green Valley Creek

Lower Laguna de Santa Rosa

Upper Laguna de Santa Rosa

Lower Santa Rosa Creek

Porter Creek (Mark West Creek)

Porter Creek (Russian River)

West Slough (Dry Creek)

Willow Creek (Russian River)

The priority boundaries exclude outer Windsor and Mendocino County in part due to insufficient data about pathogen content in the watershed for those areas.

Source: North Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board

Mary Callahan

Environment and Climate Change, The Press Democrat

I am in awe of the breathtaking nature here in Sonoma County and am so grateful to live in this spectacular region we call home. I am amazed, too, by the expertise in our community and by the commitment to protecting the land, its waterways, its wildlife and its residents. My goal is to improve understanding of the issues, to find hope and to help all of us navigate the future of our environment. 

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