PD Editorial: It’s time to finally adopt a Russian River plan

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Here’s a safe prediction: Generations to come will be thankful for everything done today to protect the Russian River.

Here’s another: Restoring and preserving the river’s health will become more challenging and expensive each time action is delayed.

As reported in The Press Democrat by Staff Writer Mary Callahan, delay has been a central feature of the North Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board’s efforts to adopt a plan to protect and improve the Russian River’s water quality. The delay so far has been excusable — earlier drafts of the plan needed refinements, and California’s water quality regulations have changed — but now it’s time to move forward.

The third iteration since 2015 of the regional water board’s staff report and draft action plan for the Russian River are now out for review and comment. Public comments will be accepted through June 24 by email at NorthCoast@waterboards.ca.gov or by writing to the Regional Water Quality Control Board at 5550 Skyline Blvd., Santa Rosa, 95403.

The board hopes to adopt the plan after a public hearing at its Aug. 14-15 meeting in Santa Rosa. The federal Clean Water Act requires states to prepare water quality protection plans, and state regulations adopted last year are designed to protect the public against waterborne bacteria from human and animal waste. The plan now under review is intended to comply with those requirements.

From its headwaters in Mendocino County to its mouth on the Sonoma County coast, the Russian River provides drinking water to 600,000 people and recreation for several times that number. Those and other uses are threatened by pollution from a variety of sources, ranging from riverfront development to streamside homeless encampments.

Since the start of its planning effort four years ago, the regional water board has heard plenty from those whose interests may be affected by such regulations as mandatory septic system upgrades or limits on runoff from livestock operations. These responses have resulted in a more tightly focused document, as detailed in the regional water board’s summary of plan revisions, that is likely to be both more effective and less intrusive.

But it’s important that the board hear from the general public as well. The Russian River courses through the very heart of the economy, environment and quality of life for everyone in its 1,484-square-mile watershed.

In the dry language of water regulation, the river is considered “impaired” by “human-specific contaminants” in many of its reaches. The impairment can become so severe that stretches of the river are closed to swimmers, as occurred two summers ago at Monte Rio Beach.

Pollution can be traced to sources large and small, but the biggest problems include the 19,000 parcels of land in the Russian River watershed that lack sewer connections. Some have failing septic systems. A sound plan can guide the region in identifying the worst threats to water quality, setting priorities for improvement and finding sources of financial assistance.

Protecting the Russian River’s water quality may be costly, but a failure to act would ultimately be much more expensive and disruptive. The regional water board needs to know that the public supports — indeed, demands — a clean and healthy Russian River.

You can send a letter to the editor at letters@pressdemocrat.com

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