Lower Russian River residents last week questioned the timing and expense of having to comply with stricter septic system regulations that kick in next year to protect river water quality and public health.
The new regs ban cesspools over time and require owners of properties served by OWTS (onsite wastewater treatment systems) within 600 feet of the Russian River and some of its tributaries to upgrade or replace old septic systems to bring them into compliance with the new state rules.
At the very least many owners of developed properties served by OWTS near the river will have to have their systems inspected by “a qualified professional” and submit a report on whether the system is adequate or needs work.
But how the process will work and how much it will cost remained unclear at a state North Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board (NCRWQCB) workshop last week.
“Who’s a qualified professional, and where do I get hold of one,” asked Monte Rio homeowner Cynthia Strecker, one of about 50 people at last week’s workshop to address the new rules.
The Sonoma County Board of Supervisors also questioned the adequacy of the process last week in comments to the NCRWQCB, which is scheduled to adopt its Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) Action Plan for the Russian River at a public hearing on August 14.
“We still don’t have the financial tools we need” to cope with the new regs, said Fifth District Supervisor Lynda Hopkins.
Although the county supports the goal of keeping the Russian River safe for recreational use, county officials cited “lack of outreach” to tell people what’s coming down.
As things stand, “the public is likely to be surprised” by the new state map of properties affected by the new regs, said the board’s comments.
Charles Reed, the NCRWQCB TMDL project manager, said OWTS owners bear responsibility for confirming their OWTS are working under new state bacteria guidelines for the Russian River.
It’s the state’s job to “identify and correct” failing or substandard OWTS that may impair river water quality, said Reed. After that it will be up to Permit Sonoma to administer the permit process.
State and county officials cautioned it won’t happen overnight.
After the Action Plan goes into effect next year, it’s projected to take about five years to figure out where specific OWTS are failing, overloaded or otherwise need corrective action, said Reed.
When the clock starts ticking, owners of substandard OWTS have up to 15 years to bring them into compliance.
State estimates indicate that 10,000 septic systems may need upgrades in the Russian River watershed, and 5,000 might have to be replaced to bring the properties into compliance with modern health and building codes.
The Russian River in Sonoma County is now officially designated as an “impaired” water body, owing to high levels of pathogenic bacteria associated with human and animal waste. Substandard septic systems, dairy runoff, recreational users, homeless camps and pet waste have been identified as contributing to river pollution.