A new plan released last week to battle the Russian River’s escalating bacteria counts calls for closer monitoring of septic systems along the river with priorities placed on older neighborhoods such as Monte Rio and Healdsburg’s Fitch Mountain area.
The plan calls for an inspection of undocumented onsite wastewater treatment systems (OWTS) within 600 feet of the Russian River and most streams in Sonoma County and has regenerated concerns that property owners may get stuck with expensive septic upgrade costs they can’t afford.
So far no one knows how many Fitch Mountain parcels will be affected by the state’s Action Plan expected to be adopted after a hearing in December, said Fitch Mountain Association President Dave Henderson.
Owners of developed properties within 600 feet of the Russian River and its tributaries will need to have their sewage disposal systems inspected once every five years, under the new rules. Cesspools will no longer be allowed in any context.
At present, “No one knows how many cesspools there are,” in the Fitch Mountain area, said Henderson. Nor is it known how many parcels with substandard septic systems will need to be repaired or replaced when the new Action Plan is approved.
A first step in the process will be a survey mailed to owners of properties in close proximity to the river that have no waste disposal permits on file at the county building department.
“Until that happens nobody has any idea,” how many Fitch Mountain parcels will need inspections and possibly corrective action to bring septic systems up to code, said Henderson.
The North Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board (NCRWQCB) has scheduled a public workshop starting at 8:30 a.m. this Thursday (Aug. 17) at its offices on Skylane Blvd. to discuss the “Action Plan for the Russian River Watershed Pathogen Total Maximum Daily Load.”
The cost for a single-family house to meet the state’s modern septic compliance regs could run from $4,000 to more than $40,000, according to some state estimates. For a restaurant on a sub-standard septic system it could cost $150,000 to comply.
State officials say the tighter regulations are being phased in and will take years to implement. For now they may not even apply to most property owners until completion of a survey that will start next year to find out what exactly kind of existing septic systems now serve an estimated 12,000 developed parcels near the Russian River in Sonoma and Mendocino counties.
“We are going to be asking for information,” said North Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board spokesman Charles Reed last week regarding the new state action plan to reduce escalating pathogenic germ counts in the Russian River watershed.
Lower Russian River area real estate brokers held a meeting with state and county officials last Friday (Aug. 11) at Monte Rio’s Northwood Restaurant to talk about how the new action plan might impact lower river property owners and renters on fixed incomes who may face thousands of dollars in septic system improvement bills.
“It’s kind of a catch-all,” said Guerneville Realtor Herman Hernandez who helped orchestrate last Friday’s Northwood meeting. “Everyone in one way or another is going to get hit.”
Hernandez said the timing of the release of the new action plan came as a surprise since the NCRWQCB backed off on a similar total maximum daily load plan two years ago because of pushback from residents in Monte Rio and Fitch Mountain, as well as the county’s Permit and Resource Management Department, now called Permit Sonoma.
Affected property owners have had little notice of the new monitoring and implementation plan, said Hernandez. “You’d think we would have at least gotten some kind of a postcard.”
Friday’s Realtor meeting was attended by Sonoma County Permit and Resource Management Department Director Tennis Wick, the NCRWQCB’s Reed and a representative of Fifth District Supervisor Lynda Hopkins.
Fitch Mountain Association residents, representing the Onsite Wastewater Treatment System (OWTS) Residents of the Russian River, are also meeting with Hopkins this week to prepare for Thursday’s (Aug. 17) workshop, said Henderson.
Fitch Mountain Association members are requesting a two-year grace period during which property owners with cesspools or failing septic systems could make voluntary repairs, “to bring their systems to repair standards under current county regulations for permitted non-conforming OWTS,” said a letter on Monday sent to the NCRWQCB’s Reed.
“Systems installed either before or during this grace period would be vested for 20 years or until functional failure, whichever came first,” said the request from the OWTS Residents of the Russian River. “Improvements to OWTS during the grace period would be at owners’ expense, at a lower cost than for improvements under the new regulation and reduce the agency workload considerably. Benefits would include (1) immediate improvements to ground- and surface-water quality; (2) creation of a reasonable, certain program which owners can act on now; (3) a gradual rather than abrupt transition from old regulations to new; and (4) implementation of regulations now, with reduced angst.”
The Action Plan released last week is now out for public review until Sept. 29. An adoption hearing is scheduled at the Regional Water Board’s December 12-13 meeting in Santa Rosa.
“There are likely to be numerous old, failing, or inadequately sited OWTS in need of replacement or upgrade,” says the Water Quality Control Board’s staff report that is now available online.
The Action Plan’s intent is to:
Improve the bacteriological quality of the surface waters in the Russian River Watershed so that public health is protected and water quality objectives are attained;
Set limits on the amount of fecal waste discharge to the surface waters of the Russian River Watershed from controllable sources;
Describe the implementation necessary to identify and control discharges of fecal waste, reduce concentrations of fecal indicator bacteria, and reduce the potential for pathogen exposure in the Russian River Watershed to levels that protect public health and meet water quality objectives, and
Describe the monitoring activities necessary to ensure that the program of implementation results in attainment of water quality objectives and protection of beneficial uses.