River residents fear high cost of complying with new regulations

Lower Russian River residents pleaded for money and mercy last week at a state water board hearing over proposed rules banning “the discharge of fecal waste” into the Russian River.

“The cost of implementing this is huge,” west county’s 5th District Supervisor Lynda Hopkins told the North Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board.

The financial ramifications will burden river residents already struggling with the cost of living, said Hopkins.

“People of my age can no longer afford to live in this county, particularly the west county,” she said.

But the strong appeal of living and playing along the Russian River is one reason why the state board voted to impose a ban on fecal waste discharge into the river. The river is now officially on a state list of “impaired” water bodies, owing to consistently high bacteria levels considered a potential threat to public health.

The ban passed last week means that about 8,000 Russian River property owners are now looking at how to repair or replace substandard or failing residential sewage disposal systems when the new law goes into effect next year.

A key concern is finding funding to enable compliance with the new regulations, with replacement costs pegged at $50,000 and up for a new residential septic system.

“I would love to see a commitment from your board to lobby for funds,” said Hopkins at last week’s public hearing. “I think that would be a really strong signal to send to the community that you care and that disadvantaged communities are not further disadvantaged by these regulations.”

The state’s Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) action plan that will go into effect next year starts with a parcel-by-parcel assessment of individual septic systems (known in bureaucracy land as OWTS — onsite wastewater treatment systems) serving residences and businesses within 600 feet of the river from Healdsburg to Jenner.

“We’re going to reach out to parcel owners who operate onsite systems,” said Charles Reed of the NCRWCB staff. “We’re going to gather information about their onsite systems to develop an inventory” and determine which parcels need repair or replacement of their sewage disposal capabilities, said Reed.

The action last week also means every parcel with an septic system near the river will have “to obtain a basic operational inspection once every five years,” said Reed.

When a septic system needs an upgrade, the owners do get some time — usually 15 or 20 years — to get the job done under the law passed last week by the state’s North Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board.

“We’ve allowed a generous amount of time to comply with the TMDL to complete any corrective action that might be necessary,” said Reed.

And before any work starts, many river residents want to get some financial help such as grants or low-interest loans to pay the bills, estimated to run as high as $70,000 to repair or replace some of the antiquated and substandard septic systems serving former cabins and summer houses along the river.

“The availability of public funding to comply with the TMDL is going to be critical to the success of this action plan,” said Reed.

State and county officials are now working on firming up funding opportunities, said Reed.

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