Poverty has always seemed like a central fact of life along the lower Russian River. Over the years it’s become a growth industry, right up there with tourism, vacation rentals and sipping fine wine.

Frank Robertson column photo

Frank Robertson

Now it’s almost like something visitors may want to see along with the redwoods or the coast.

“Look at these exotic river denizens with their primitive cabins all jammed together,” the visitor brochures might brag. “They’re not like us, are they? Have you ever seen anything like this before?”

Probably not, at least in Northern California. It isn’t mentioned in the visitor brochures yet, but tourists may someday come here to marvel at our exotic sewage disposal methods. Look how we store our dung in little boxes under the house or out in the yard. Sometimes we don’t know where the stuff goes. Maybe into the river. Maybe not. We don’t always know and sometimes we don’t care.

Elsewhere in Sonoma County we don’t condone that kind of uncertainty. We make sure our suburban neighbors connect their homes to sewer systems. We’ve even built municipal sewage treatment systems along the lower river (in Forestville and Guerneville) where the risks to public health were found too dire to allow the old ways to continue.

In Guerneville when they built the town’s sewage disposal system they ordered everyone to use it. The law required “mandatory hookups.”

It wasn’t cheap. If you owned a house in the Russian River Sanitation District, you had to ditch your old septic system — sometimes it was just a redwood box — and hook up to the sewage disposal system.

Someone who connected to the Guerneville system 30 years ago would be out $10,000 or $20,000 in hookup fees in today’s money, and it now costs property owners more than $1,500 every year to help pay for the sewage plant’s operation. Add that up and it comes to about $50,000. That’s approximately how much the crybabies affected by the new rules adopted last week say they can’t afford.

So last week we had residents from Fitch Mountain to Villa Grande saying if you can’t prove they’re each polluting the river they should be left alone with their old substandard septic systems. It hasn’t been shown that their antiquated sewage disposal methods — whatever they are, in some cases nobody knows for sure — pose any threat to Russian River water quality.

State testing of river bacteria levels in Monte Rio “do not indicate a septic problem,” self-appointed hydro analyst and Russian River Watershed Protection spokeswoman Brenda Adelman said last week at a public hearing on whether to ban the discharge of fecal waste into the river or its tributaries.

A resident of Fitch Mountain in Healdsburg’s also decried the “absence of strong science” to show that Fitch Mountain’s old riverside houses served by septic systems pose any health risk.

“Fitch Mountain is not Healdsburg,” he said, a reference to the neighborhood’s limited financial resources. “We have a lot of old cabins that have been converted into homes and people have been living in them for years and years, and they don’t have a lot of money.”

The howls continued downstream. The clean river action plan adopted last week will be “a disaster for the lower Russian River,” predicted the vice president of the Hacienda Improvement Association. “People will be forced from their homes.”

And finally, to bring the state’s entire Water Quality Control Board up to speed, a Guerneville real estate agent said, “I have not seen one person get sick from swimming in the river.”

Now there’s a great threshold for maintaining public health: wait until some river swimmers get noticeably ill. Then we’ll know it’s time to do something.

But hey — what if the foot draggers are right? It does raise some questions. If all these old septic systems are basically harmless and should be left alone, why can’t Guerneville residents still have them too? Why shouldn’t all the residents of Windsor, Santa Rosa and Rohnert Park also have their own backyard septic systems? It could save them a bundle on their sewer bills.

I think it’s called a double standard.

Frank Robertson is a member of the Sonoma West Publishers staff.

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