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E. coli contamination in wells near Rohnert Park prompts alert

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Sonoma County officials fanned out in the Canon Manor neighborhood east of Rohnert Park this week warning dozens of residents that water drawn from private wells may be contaminated with E. coli and fecal coliform bacteria.

Two wells outside homes in the neighborhood near Sonoma State University already have tested positive for what county officials called “extremely high” levels of the two strains of bacteria. The county ordered the property owners to discontinue using the wells, which are in the 1700 block of Lynn Drive. The owners have subsequently hooked up to a system operated by the Penngrove/Kenwood Water Co.

County health officials stressed that there have been no reports of anyone being sickened from drinking or using water from contaminated wells in Canon Manor. Symptoms of E. coli infection include abdominal distress and headaches. It’s unknown whether the contamination also includes potentially deadly strains of the bacteria as the county’s lab tests are not that specific, according to Karen Holbrook, the county’s deputy health officer.

“We’re acting out of an abundance of caution,” she said.

The county first received a complaint about sewage odors emanating from a well Dec. 18 from a property owner on Lynn Drive. Tests of wells on two adjacent properties revealed the presence of more than 2,419 colonies of E. coli and fecal coliform in a 100-milliliter sampling of water. There are no safe levels for either bacteria.

Seeking to understand the scope of the problem, county officials on Wednesday began canvassing the neighborhood in a quarter-mile radius around that location, knocking on doors to alert residents about the concern and to ask permission to test wells. A notice to all Canon Manor residents was being sent Thursday via mail. There are more than 200 lots in the area, but it was not immediately clear how many residents live in the neighborhood.

“We’re moving expeditiously to understand the extent of this so we can take the appropriate steps,” Holbrook said.

She said results of lab tests on water taken from additional wells won’t be known for a few more days. The county is seeking only to test private, residential wells. Those operated by Penngrove/Kenwood are monitored by the state.

One resident who answered her door Thursday expressed appreciation for the county’s efforts.

“I want to know what’s going on,” said Arryn Schram, whose family uses a well to irrigate.

The neighborhood, which is in an unincorporated part of the county, is linked to Rohnert Park’s sewer system and to the public water system operated by Penngrove/Kenwood Water Co.

That arrangement sought to end decades of bitter dispute over failing individual septic systems. Beginning in 1976, excessive and elevated levels of nitrates began showing up in a few private wells. Health inspectors said the contamination likely emanated from fecal material from former chicken farms in the area.

Some residents held fast to their desire to continue using private wells. But county officials and a bloc of other Canon Manor residents pushed for an assessment district to fund sewer and water line construction. The assessment district failed three times in votes before passing in 2001.

The county installed a sewer main in the subdivision before handing over management of the system to Rohnert Park.

The county also enacted an ordinance requiring Canon Manor residents to hook up to public water and sewer lines, abandon septic systems and to discontinue well use for domestic purposes. Such directives have garnered similar controversy in Mirabel Heights, Monte Rio and some Russian River areas.

Dozens of residents in Canon Manor appear to be flouting the law. Some may have balked over the associated costs, which for a sewer hookup alone runs about $22,000 for a single-family home, according to Rohnert Park officials. Annual sewer bills total about $1,200.

Out of 220 lots in Canon Manor, 33 are not connected to sewer and 56 are not connected to water. Of those, 26 are not connected to either, according to officials.

The county will seek code enforcement action against property owners who refuse to connect, according to Tennis Wick, director of the Permit and Resource Management Department. He would not comment on why the county hasn’t pursued that course of action prior to now.

“We have every expectation that they (property owners) will come into compliance,” Wick said.

At least one homeowner on Thursday vowed to keep resisting such edicts.

“I think the city has contaminated our water, and now I think the county is trying to take our water away,” said John Thomas as he stood on the porch of his Lynn Drive home.

Thomas said he was one of the two property owners who were ordered to discontinue use of their private well due to the contamination. He said his family first became aware of the problem in early December when the water inside their ranch-style home turned a grayish color and began smelling of sewage and detergent.

Thomas said he and a few of his neighbors who hired a private lab to analyze their water uncovered the presence of harmful bacterias, as well as surfactants — compounds used in detergents, emulsifiers and dispersants, among other products.

Around the time of the residents’ water problems, Rohnert Park crews came out to the neighborhood to clear a blockage in the sewer line running along Lynn Drive. According to Thomas, the blockage extended to Wolf Den Plaza on East Cotati Avenue. The plaza is home to numerous restaurants and other businesses.

Some of the same residents now suspect that leaks in the sewer line were the source of their well contamination.

“Here they want us to connect to their sewer line, and it’s contaminating the aquifer,” Thomas said.

City officials confirmed the discovery of two leaks in laterals running off the main sewer line. The property owners in question paid to repair the leaks.

But Don Schwartz, Rohnert Park’s assistant city manager, said it’s “highly unlikely” that the sewer line was the source of the well contamination.

Officials say the contamination could stem from a number of sources, including sewer lines or septic systems. They also point out the problem surfaced following significant rain storms after years of drought.

Thomas said he spent about $7,000 to hook up to the public water supply after the county ordered him to discontinue using his well. But he’s not giving up on using the well in the future, calling it an “asset” that brings added value to his property.

You can reach Staff Writer Derek Moore at 521-5336 or derek.moore@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @deadlinederek.

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