Monte Rio beach (copy)

Monte Rio Beach was crowded over 4th of July weekend in 2017. The beach reopened on Wednesday, July 12, after being closed to the public for seven days due to E. coli contamination, something new systems are hoping to prevent.

Sonoma County secured $500,000 in state grant money mid-April to fund a study exploring alternative wastewater disposal options for the Monte Rio and Villa Grande communities along the lower Russian River, according to an April 19 press release from the California State Water Resources Control Board.

The California State Water Resources Control Board approved the funding on April 14 for the feasibility study anticipated to start this spring and take about two years to complete, the press release said. The county plans to kick off community meetings at the outset of the project so communities can stay informed and share feedback on the options on the table.

“The local community, Sonoma County and the Regional Water Board have been exploring solutions for addressing aging septic systems in lower Russian River communities for more than 20 years,” North Coast Water Board Executive Officer Matthias St. John said in the state water board’s announcement. 

Identified as disadvantaged communities, Monte Rio and Villa Grande’s septic systems are breaking down, complicated by the steep landscape, “small lot-size and inadequate separation from surface or groundwater,” the press release said. 

Overall, the project aims to make upgrading wastewater treatment systems easier so the communities can successfully meet new “Total Maximum Daily Load” (TMDL) requirements to lower fecal pollution in the lower Russian River Watershed, the press release said.

The North Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board adopted a TMDL Action Plan in August 2019 in response to pathogens stemming from individual onsite wastewater treatment systems and other sources that impair the watershed, according to the county website’s profile on the Lower Russian River Wastewater Citizens Advisory Group (the CAG).

Guerneville, Rio Nido, Camp Meeker, Jenner, Hacienda and Cazadero are among the other areas held to the TMDL Action Plan’s new onsite wastewater treatment system requirements, in addition to Monte Rio and Villa Grande, per the county website. 

Getting onsite wastewater treatment systems up to standard can be amazingly expensive, though, which is why the study will examine so many potential solutions, according to Alisha O’Loughlin, the county’s Lower Russian River ombudsman. 

O’Loughlin said the cost for an individual to upgrade is highly site-specific, depending on their current system and how close they are to the river or an impacted waterway, but supplemental treatment can cost $50,000 or higher to bring a system up to code.

“Every situation is very different,” she said. “That’s not going to be the case for everyone, but it will be the case for some.”

O’Loughlin said the county is working with the state to develop a grant and “mini loan” program to support individual homeowners with individual septic upgrades, eyeing the state’s Clean Water State Revolving Fund for financing.

Making sure individual property owners aren’t left to come up with the funds on their own is a priority of the citizens advisory group, according to co-chair Steve Trippe.

State and county representatives established the CAG in 2018 to guide the Monte Rio and Villa Grande Wastewater Treatment Project as a pilot, per the county website’s CAG profile.

“The government through one mechanism or another ought to be able to generate resources to help defray the infrastructure costs here to be able to allow people to afford to do it,” said CAG co-chair Steve Trippe. “It’s prohibitively expensive for people to upgrade their systems from everything that we hear in terms of what’s currently acceptable.”

The cost hits when there’s a home sale or other impetus for an upgrade to new standards and property owners find themselves without support,” he said, adding their contention is that there should be some help available beyond a loan program.

“This is a community problem, this is a county problem. This is not an individual owner problem, and that’s what we’re trying to provide input on,” Trippe said. “And I must say there’s been receptivity at the county level and at the state water board to find solutions here that work for people.”

A project years in the making, with years left to go

The Sonoma County Water Agency (Sonoma Water) will hire the consultant that will prepare the feasibility study, at the county’s request, according to Mike Thompson, Sonoma Water’s assistant general manager.

The county had asked Sonoma Water to apply for the state’s Clean Water State Revolving Fund grant that hooked $500,000, he said. The pilot project is to assess possible solutions for Monte Rio and Villa Grande that can also inform how other communities along the Russian River can respond to the need for upgraded septic systems, Thompson said.

“So, the consultant will look at a wide range of alternatives and try to narrow it down to what appears to be the most feasible alternative,” he said. From there, the project moves on to designing the recommended alternative wastewater disposal option and its environmental documentation and then to construction, the project’s third phase, Thompson said.

A wide range of options to be assessed include alternative on-site systems and community septic systems, like a conventional sewer channeling wastewater to a new or existing wastewater treatment plant, he said.

“So it would range, I guess, from systems that could serve a single house to systems that could serve clusters of five, ten, twenty homes, or a system that could handle hundreds to a thousand homes,” Thompson said.

Though the North Coast Regional Water Quality Control board passed a TMDL Action Plan in August 2019 to address pathogens in the watershed, O’Loughlin said the regional board intends to revise the plan this October, likely to send for state approval in the summer of 2022.

Once the state approves the TMDL requirements, the clock will soon start ticking for communities to get into compliance, said the ombudsman.

She said homeowners pursuing individual septic upgrades would have 15 years to get up to code and those investing in a community wastewater system would have 20 years. The county seeks a proactive approach to support homeowners now, O’Loughlin said.

Sonoma Water has been working with the CAG for about three years, Thompson said, and in 2018, the agency expected to get the grant through the state in six months to a year, not two-and-a-half to three years due to setbacks at the state-level, among them a global pandemic. 

“The good news is, the grant’s in,” co-chair Trippe said, although concerns remain about securing funding throughout the project’s lifetime.

Trippe said the citizens advisory group hopes the county will prioritize wastewater disposal solutions in its state funding requests because “this sort of infrastructure development is what government is for,” adding, “citizens should support maybe the ongoing cost of operations, but not the development and building costs.”

He said, “Perhaps one of our strongest recommendations is there needs to be a support system and an advocacy system set up in the county to support individuals and businesses and communities that need to comply with these regulations … people shouldn’t be left on their own.”

While the county pursues a grant and loan program for individual septic upgrades, O’Loughlin said funding for community-based wastewater treatment solutions would probably come from the state with set criteria. She said Monte Rio and Villa Grande qualify for more funding sources because they’re recognized as economically-disadvantaged communities.

“Just with any type of major infrastructural project, there are always going to be funding hurdles. Plus, given the topography of the area, it’s especially challenging, I think, to identify the various wastewater infrastructure alternatives,” O’Loughlin said.

The ombudsman continued, “So, the real challenge is going to be trying to find a solution or set of solutions that works for both communities and to really get the community involved in that process so that they’re an active contributor in developing those solutions and that they embrace them.”

Charles Reed of the regional water board’s Point Source Control and Groundwater Protection Division could not be reached in the days leading up to publication for comment on the lower Russian River watershed’s pollutant levels.

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