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Restoring the Russian River Water Quality


Restoring the Russian River Water Quality

By William Massey

We have promised it for years, and it is finally here. The North Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board (Regional Water Board) has just released its draft assessment and strategy to address water quality issues in the Russian River watershed.  The Russian River Watershed, from the headwaters north of Cloverdale to the mouth at Jenner, is a jewel of the North Coast Region, supporting a rich diversity of urban and rural values including family-friendly communities; outdoor recreation; renowned restaurants, wineries, and vacation opportunities; and economic opportunities ranging from farming to high tech. The Regional Water Board strategy, called a total maximum daily load Action Plan (TMDL Action Plan), specifically focuses on ways to protect those who recreate in the Russian River Watershed by identifying and controlling all sources of insufficiently treated human and domestic animal waste from entering the water.  

The Regional Water Board already implements a prohibition against the direct discharge of waste to the Russian River during the summer months.  But, the draft TMDL Action Plan augments the existing approach with potential solutions for controlling indirect discharges of waste, as well storm induced discharges that occur during the rainy season.  

What is the Problem?

Water quality monitoring from the Russian River and its tributary creeks reflect widespread contamination with bacteria and other indicators of human and animal waste, which pose a potential threat to the health of the river ecosystem and the people who visit it.  Bacteria can indicate the presence of pathogenic organisms that are found in warm-blooded animal waste.  Data assessed by Regional Water Board staff show that some locations within the watershed have bacteria concentrations that indicate the potential presence of pathogens at levels that are higher than is safe for water contact recreation.

What is Causing the Problem?

Every community has to deal with aging infrastructure and outdated facilities that require replacement or upgrade.  In the case of the Russian River Watershed, there are various locations where leaking septic systems and sewer lines appear to be indirectly discharging insufficiently treated fecal waste to the river and its tributaries. This wastewater can intercept a crack or conduit, or reach the surface so as to flow across the ground or in a ditch or storm drain, where it is then more readily carried to the river.  The problem is even worse during the rainy season when the storm drains run full bore and contaminated soils themselves are more easily mobilized. The list of other potential sources of fecal waste include dairy and non-dairy livestock operations, municipal wastewater treatment facilities, homeless encampments, pet waste, and recreational water users themselves. 

What can be Done About It?

The draft TMDL Action Plan describes a strategy to pinpoint specific problem areas and determine appropriate site-specific fixes.  The Regional Water Board specifically looks to our agency partners for assistance in establishing the programs necessary to tighten up controls, as well as make grants and loans available to do the necessary inspections, permitting, replacements, upgrades, and community planning exercises that are necessary. In addition, the Regional Water Board and our agency partners will be seeking input from the community via citizen advisory committees on potential solutions.

The Regional Water Board requests public feedback on its draft TMDL Action Plan so that it is in the best possible position to take action at its November 19, 2015 meeting.  Conditions in the Russian River Watershed are such that there is a real potential for people to get sick while recreating in the river, under some circumstances and at some locations.  This is not a condition that anybody wants for our watershed.  But the good news is that with the help of local agencies, businesses, residents, and visitors alike, we believe this is a problem we can solve. The draft TMDL Action Plan provides flexibility to implement appropriate solutions that fit local communities. It provides time to further investigate the extent and nature of any particular source, evaluate the range of alternative solutions, obtain funding assistance, and develop an overall compliance program.  By everybody doing their part to control these sources of human and animal waste, we can restore the watershed to healthy conditions.

Public Comment Period

As a Board member of the Regional Water Board, I encourage readers to familiarize yourselves with the draft TMDL Action Plan, provide comments, and get involved by controlling harmful sources of waste. The proposed draft TMDL Action Plan, substitute environmental documentation, and supporting staff report for the Russian River Pathogen Indicator Bacteria TMDL is now available for a 45-day public comment period. The public comment period began on August 21, 2015 and will end by 5:00 p.m. on October 8, 2015.  During the public comment period, Regional Water Board staff will hold three public workshops within the community (see details below). Regional Water Board staff will consider comments, make revisions as appropriate, and present the TMDL before the Regional Water Board at a public hearing for the purpose of adopting the Action Plan as an amendment to the Basin Plan.  My Regional Water Board colleagues and I will consider the TMDL Action Plan for adoption at a hearing scheduled for November 19, 2015 in Santa Rosa.  I encourage your participation.

How to Stay Involved

Information on the Russian River Pathogen Indicator Bacteria TMDL can be found at:

Unformation on public comment opportunities can be found at:

Persons wishing to receive notices related to the Russian River Pathogen Indicator Bacteria TMDL should subscribe to the email list, under Resources, 

Email Subscription on the left side of the Regional Water Board’s main web page at

Questions regarding this meeting or general questions regarding the Russian River Pathogen Indicator Bacteria TMDL should be directed to Charles Reed, by phone at 707-576-2752 or email at  or Alydda Mangelsdorf, by phone at 707-576-6735 or email at

Workshop 1: Tuesday September 22,   6 to 9P.M. Monte Rio Middle School: 20700 Foothill Dr, Monte Rio

Workshop 2: Wednesday September 23, 6 to 9 P.M. UC Cooperative Extension Mendocino County: 890 N. Bush St. Ukiah

Workshop 3: Thursday September 24, 5 to 8P.M. Regional Water Board: 5550 Skylane Blvd. Suite A, Santa Rosa

Hearing: Thursday November 19, 8:30 A.M.  Regional Water Board: 5550 Skylane Blvd. Suite A, Santa Rosa

Russian River Watershed MAP