Occidental eyes inexpensive wastewater treatment plan

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Twenty years of headaches over handling wastewater from the tiny west county community of Occidental appear to be nearing an end with a relatively inexpensive, although admittedly inelegant solution: Truck it down the road for treatment in Guerneville.

After scrapping plans to upgrade the Occidental treatment plant and pipe the effluent to a storage pond on a nearby vineyard at a price tag of up to $6 million, county officials settled instead on a $1.4 million project that depends on existing facilities and a pair of 5,000-gallon water trucks.

“It’s the most economical solution we could find,” said Cordel Stillman, Sonoma County Water Agency deputy chief engineer.

Cost has always been a factor, since the Occidental sanitation district, which serves about 118 parcels clustered along Bohemian Highway, already has the highest rate in the county — and among the highest in the state — at $2,086 a year per equivalent single-family dwelling.

A subsidy of about $400,000 a year from the Water Agency’s general fund has offset rate hikes, and the bargain-priced project won’t cause any increases, Stillman said.

Under the new plan, the trucks would haul Occidental’s wastewater, which averages 17,000 gallons a day in dry weather and up to 100,000 gallons during rainstorms, from the lift station on the Occidental Camp Meeker Road about 9 miles to the Guerneville treatment plant, also operated by the Water Agency.

As a backup plan, when wastewater volume is high or roads are closed, Occidental’s wastewater would be trucked — in the opposite direction — to another one of the Water Agency’s eight treatment plants located next to the Charles M. Schulz-Sonoma County Airport.

Both the Guerneville and airport plants provide tertiary treatment of wastewater, the highest level of sewage processing.

Occidental would shut down its secondary-level treatment plant on Occidental Road next to the Druids Occidental Cemetery, retaining the ponds there only for temporary wastewater storage.

The water trucks would make five to 15 trips a day over the course of a year, with more trips in wet weather.

It’s not an “elegant solution,” Stillman said, but it meets the longstanding demands of the North Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board, the other major factor behind the project. The Occidental district has been under water board orders since 1997 to quit storing treated wastewater in a pond next to the treatment plant and discharging it into Dutch Bill Creek, a coho salmon spawning stream.

Over the past two decades, at least 15 corrective plans have been identified, studied and rejected because they were technically unworkable, too costly or lacking in community support.

Under the latest iteration of the state order, the district has until Jan. 31, 2018, to comply.

The project, including about $1 million in modifications to the Occidental lift station and treatment plant and the Guerneville treatment facility, is mostly designed, Stillman said.

Officials hope to gain approval from the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors in March or April and start construction in the fall, a timetable that would meet the water board deadline, he said.

A 185-page study of the project, required by California environmental law, is available online at the Water Agency and at public libraries in Occidental, Guerneville and Forestville, as well as at the Water Agency office in Santa Rosa.

The deadline for public comments on the study is Jan. 23.

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