Mar 4, 2019
by Carol Benfell
In 1978, Brenda Adelman was a newcomer to the Guerneville area, a school teacher, housewife and jewelry maker who operated a crafts business out of her Rio Nido home.
Forty years later, she is recognized by The Press Democrat as one of the 50 most influential people on the North Coast and has received dozens of awards from government agencies and environmental groups for her tireless efforts to protect the Russian River.
On February 20, the North Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board, the state water regulator, honored her with a Water Quality Stewardship Award for her advocacy and effectiveness in protecting the Russian River watershed.
The award notes her influence in the city of Santa Rosa’s historic decision to expand wastewater recycling to the Geysers, and her continuing efforts to increase awareness of the role of endocrine disrupting chemicals on human health and aquatic life.
“Brenda has been an active participant and advocate for water quality in the Russian River for years,” said Josh Curtin, the board’s assistant executive officer. “She’s provided extensive input to our Board, and we’ve have made changes because of the things she’s brought up. We really appreciate Brenda.”
It all started, Adelman said, in 1979 when she joined a group of fellow townspeople concerned about the skyrocketing cost of a county proposal to build a wastewater treatment plant in Guerneville.
Then in 1985, amidst heavy rainfall, one million gallons of raw sewage spilled from Santa Rosa’s overflowing treatment ponds into the Laguna de Santa Rosa, which empties into the Russian River. That was followed by the city’s intentional, but illegal four-day release of 750 million gallons of treated wastewater.
Downstream, River communities were traumatized. The River might be Santa Rosa’s sewer pipe, but it was the source of their drinking water.
“There was a lot of fear. People were afraid of the drinking water supply, even the emergency drinking water that Santa Rosa provided,” Adelman said. “Everyone was outraged.”
Santa Rosa was penalized for the spill and ordered by the state to find a weather-independent method of wastewater disposal. For 16 years, the city explored a series of projects in various parts of the county that also called for increasing discharge in the Russian River.
Adelman and her group, the Russian River Water Protection Committee, fought on. They were not the only group opposing the discharges, but they were the most persistent. She read and researched her way through four multi-volume environmental impact reports with thousands of pages of scientific data and spent hundreds of hours attending and speaking at meetings.
She launched letter-writing campaigns, presented papers, galvanized community groups, published articles, developed a 1,000-person mailing list, and gave interviews, gradually developing an extensive knowledge of water quality that won the respect of the professionals.
Finally, in 2002, Santa Rosa chose to send most of its wastewater to the Geysers to recharge the dwindling steam fields that produce geothermal power. City and county officials credited Adelman for stalling the city long enough that a more environmentally sound project could be found.
She doesn’t get paid. She survives on a modest income. What kept her going?
“Outrage,” Adelman said. “Outrage. I was always just outraged.”
She continues to speak out on River issues. She’s currently battling a federal proposal to limit dam releases and significantly lower River flows in summer. The proposal is aimed at protecting endangered salmon species, but Adelman argues it will instead increase the growth of oxygen-killing algae and raise bacterial levels.
She’s also working to raise regulators’ understanding of endocrine disrupters, and sponsored a daylong seminar on the issue, bringing together experts from around the country. Endocrine disrupters are chemicals often found in wastewater that can cause birth defects, cancer and developmental issues in humans and fish.
As a result, the Regional Water Quality Board is conducting a special study to monitor the chemicals in the Russian River.
“Brenda is a Sonoma County treasure,” said Richard Retecki, a retired project analyst with the state Coastal Conservancy. “She’s persisted for decades, she’s been effective, and she’s made a difference. The county would be a lot worse off if she hadn’t done this work for all of us.”
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