By Brenda Adelman
Occidental has the smallest and possibly the most problematic sewer system in Sonoma County. For years, frequent violations of its wastewater-discharge permit have resulted in fines and penalties exacted by the North Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board, along with orders to fix the system. With the board's 2008 deadline to stop polluting Dutch Bill Creek quickly approaching, Occidental is under the gun.
Like the Russian River County Sanitation District (RRCSD) and other smaller districts, Occidental's sewer is managed by the Sonoma County Water Agency (SCWA). The agency is governed by the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors, who double as the water agency's board of directors. Other than voting for their local supervisor, district ratepayers have virtually no say in the decision process.
Over the years, the SCWA has made it exceedingly clear that it doesn't want to manage small wastewater districts. The reason is economic; ratepayers can't afford the high overhead charged by the agency, which then ends up subsidizing such districts. The agency's negative attitude has no doubt contributed to Occidental's ongoing sewer problems.
In 1997, Occidental was ordered by the regional water board to produce a long range project that would address compliance issues. An environmental impact report was prepared by highly qualified engineers, who concluded that the preferred alternative was a land-based community leachfield system which would discharge into the ground instead of Dutch Bill Creek or the RRCSD system.
Then disagreement flared up among the engineers, consultants and regional water board staff regarding the amount of wastewater that could be applied to the site, a calculation that determined the viability of the proposal. The regional board staff prevailed, and as a result, the project languished.
Around the same time, nearby Camp Meeker began exploring ways to get out from under a lengthy building moratorium for declared septic problems. In 1999, it developed a new sewer project that proposed to upgrade the current Occidental plant to include capacity for both towns. It also required a discharge into Dutch Bill Creek of 5 percent. In light of anticipated new toxic regulations, it appeared to be a misguided approach.
Yet mysteriously, regional board staff indicated support for the proposal and the environmental impact report moved forward, with the SCWA still in charge. The Russian River Watershed Protection Committee, of which I am the chair, has long been concerned about linking other sewer systems in west Sonoma County to the RRSCD system. Since the SCWA took over management of the treatment system in 1995, the RRCSD has violated its discharge permit almost every winter. The system has inadequate summer irrigation areas, inadequate disinfection and insufficient storage capability, preventing current ratepayers from getting through the winter without violations and penalties.
Thus it was disappointing when regional board staff favored the Camp Meeker/Occidental combined discharge system over the community leachfield that many believed to be cheaper and environmentally superior.
However, the combined project was proposed during a time of major federal and state funding cutbacks, and it never got the money needed to move forward. Camp Meeker, not under state order to take action, recently withdrew its support for the project.
Meanwhile, Occidental continues to violate its discharge permit and is now feeling great pressure from the regional board to comply with the 2008 deadline to have a new system up and running. It's now considering running a raw sewage pipeline to the RRCSD. The preferred land-based leachfield option is no longer on the table, even though the Environmental Protection Agency and many experts now say that for small communities, such systems may be much preferred over expensive and growth-inducing pipeline projects.
In 1999, the SCWA rejected a new RRCSD environmental impact report, which cost ratepayers $600,000, because it was improperly prepared. One month later, the water agency proposed an expanded treatment plant expansion based on the 1976 RRCSD report. We viewed this proposed expansion as the first step in a piecemealed centralized West County plant that would avoid addressing environmental impacts.
The Russian River Watershed Protection Committee legally challenged the use of the 23-year-old report to address project impacts. Our arguments were denied both in the superior and appellate courts, since County Council, on behalf of the SCWA, argued that the project was not intended to provide additional hookups or serve other communities or annexations, but to treat high wet-weather flows.
Yet now, regional board staff and Occidental leaders have suggested that building a pipeline to Guerneville is the most viable solution to Occidental's sewer problems. It's clear that any additional hookups to the RRCSD must include completion of a detailed environmental impact report that addresses all of the cumulative impacts to this problematic system.
Brenda Adelman has been Chair of Russian River Watershed Protection Committee (RRWPC) since 1980. The Byrne Report will return next week.
From the June 29-July 5, 2005 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.
© 2005 Metro Publishing Inc.