State plans tighter oversight to stem Russian River pollution

State officials are targeting faulty sewage systems along the Russian River and other means through which human and animal waste enters the waterway, which will have profound ramifications for many North Coast residents.|

A newly developed plan designed to improve water quality in the Russian River and address fecal bacterial contamination throughout the watershed will have profound ramifications for many North Coast residents, as state regulators target faulty sewage systems and other means through which human and animal waste may be entering waterways.

The state move, outlined in a draft action plan released by regulators last month, highlights the critical role the river plays as a water supply to more than 600,000 North Bay residents and as a popular recreational destination, offering swimming, boating and fishing opportunities.

It also shows the contamination problems facing the river are complex and multifaceted, affected by everything from failing municipal sewer lines, sewage holding ponds and residential septic tanks to homeless encampments, grazing cattle and dirty diapers left on river beaches.

Communities throughout the 1,484-square-mile watershed and thousands of residents dependent on septic tanks will be affected to varying degrees by the state step, if only because they must demonstrate their systems are operating correctly.

The plan has implications particularly for those in defined “high priority areas” - neighborhoods where bacterial levels have most often exceeded acceptable levels and where onsite waste disposal systems, like septic tanks, are densely located, in close proximity to the river and its feeder streams.

Landowners in those areas, concentrated in the lower river region, will be subject to special inspection and monitoring requirements under the plan, and some will need to make potentially costly repairs.

“This is a big deal,” said Sonoma County Supervisor Efren Carrillo, noting that rough estimates suggest tens of thousands of homeowners could be affected in communities where income disparity is often a problem.

“I don’t want to sound alarmist at all, because that’s not my intent, but this really is a very big deal for many of these communities,” Carrillo said.

The new proposal represents the latest in a string of attempts to address outdated and failing septic systems in the Russian River watershed, long deemed a culprit in high bacterial levels.

Previous moves by state regulators have provoked strong opposition from rural landowners, and may do again, as the cost of upgrading faulty tanks or centralizing waste disposal through new sewer systems has often been seen as prohibitively high, with geography and the region’s lower median income serving as two main hurdles.

But longtime Forestville resident William Massey, who has served on the North Coast Water Quality Control Board for 16 years, said he hopes residents also understand that action can no longer be delayed.

“The river is damaged,” Massey said. “The river has problems. It’s not tremendous damage. It’s not a tremendous problem. But it’s a problem, and it’s one that’s caused by human beings.”

Close to 45,000 Sonoma County households are said to be dependent on septic systems, though the new proposal singles out priority areas where evidence suggests failures are common and corrective action necessary.

High priority areas include the lower Russian River communities of Guerneville, Monte Rio, Rio Nido, Jenner, Cazadero, Camp Meeker, Mirabel, Hacienda and Summer Home Park, as well as Healdsburg’s Fitch Mountain area.

Under the new plan, property owners in those areas will be required to meet standards that could involve supplemental wastewater treatment and failure alarms, though residents with faulty systems could choose to connect to a centralized system or participate in a county-approved management plan with a local agency.

Lower priority areas include Oakmont in east Santa Rosa, north Cloverdale, Talmage and Redwood Valley, as well as properties with onsite waste treatment systems within 600 feet of the river’s main stem or its tributaries in the middle and upper reaches of the watershed.

Septic tanks and other systems in those areas will require periodic inspections, at a minimum.

The plan is a result of requirements under the federal Clean Water Act to devise new strategies for impaired water systems such as the Russian River where existing regulations have proved insufficient. It has been in development for several years, regulators said.

It includes what officials said are liberal timelines, opportunities for county assistance and state grant programs that should reduce some of the burden and cost of meeting new standards.

“We’re building in some flexibility and time for folks to come into compliance,” said Matt St. John, executive officer of the North Coast Water Quality Control Board. He said the potential cost to an individual homeowner with a failing system could be on the order of tens of thousands of dollars.

The state move is based on sampling and lab tests that have found bacteria indicating contamination by insufficiently treated human and animal waste, especially waste from cattle, that could put swimmers and other recreational users at risk of illness if they incidentally ingest water.

Fortunately, the worst periods of bacterial pollution have been observed during wet weather periods - when rain, runoff and storm drains wash contaminants into the river and its tributaries, and rainwater infiltrates aging sewer lines - and not during the summer months, when thousands are drawn to local river beaches to swim.

But even heavy summer use can cause a spike in bacteria, such as occurred during the Fourth of July weekend in 2013, water board staffers said.

The new regulation, for the first time, establishes a maximum allowable level for fecal bacteria, beyond which the river and its tributaries would no longer meet federal standards for swimming and other former of water recreation that involve direct body contact. The board has regulatory authority that would permit it to enforce requirements articulated in the plan, and its members hope and believe the plan will deliver cleaner water.

But if the goal is not met, the board would have to reassess and adopt another layer of regulations in order to reach and sustain improved bacterial levels, St. John said.

The plan contains management criteria for every controllable source of bacteria, including communities, districts, campgrounds and other public and private entities authorized to treat, percolate, recycle, store or discharge treated wastewater into the river; county parks departments and other operators of public beaches; dairies and livestock operations; and owners of property with farmworker or homeless encampments.

Much of the focus is on individual septic systems because so many were installed long ago and remain buried and largely unattended. Those built for a weekend home may now handle much larger waste loads. Many were built before permits were required.

They also tend to be concentrated in areas that are unsuitable for sanitary sewer systems because of uneven, steep and shifting terrain subject to erosion - the same conditions that can interfere with proper operation of septic systems and attached leach fields.

“If you think about it,” Massey said, “if we were to start (fresh) with a blank piece of paper and we had the Russian River the way it is - in a canyon with steep slopes, with poor soils - there would not be a dwelling along the river. It’s just too sensitive an area.”

But there are dwellings, many of them, and the question now is what to do about it, Massey said.

“We are cleaning the environment,” he said. “That’s really important in my mind.”

Russian River Watershed Protection Committee Chairwoman Brenda Adelman said the goals of the plan are laudable, though the “devil is in the details,” with success dependent in large part on the physical and financial feasibility of whatever corrections are deemed necessary.

“We don’t want to see anyone lose their home over this,” Adelman said.

Carrillo’s concerns are similar. He noted that up to eight county agencies and departments would be directly impacted by the regulations and expressed concern that all affected have ample time to understand, respond to and plan for the coming changes.

“This has a very, very large and broad potential impact to the community, and with that do come some potential significant financial impacts,” Carrillo said. “We’re going to need a lot of time to work with the community, to work with the stakeholders.”

Public workshops on the new regulations are scheduled this month in Monte Rio, Ukiah and Santa Rosa. The North Coast water board is set to consider adopting the plan at a ?Nov. 19 hearing.

More information is available at

You can reach Staff ?Writer Mary Callahan ?at 521-5249 or mary.? On Twitter ?@MaryCallahanB.

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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