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Homes along the Russian River will have to meet TMDL Action Plan standard
Homes along the Russian River will have to meet TMDL Action Plan standard

The Pressure is On - State Agency Plans to Clean up Russian River Watershed

Aug 29, 2017
by David Abbott


By David Abbott

The North Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board plan to clean up the Russian River returned to Sonoma County on Aug. 17, as the Water Board presented its Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) Action Plan to the public in anticipation of the deadline for comment on the plan.

TMDL Action Plan Comment deadline: Friday, Sept. 29.


Wednesday, September 20, 2017 - 5:30 p.m. – 8:00 p.m.
Guerneville Veterans Memorial Hall,
16225 1st Street, Guerneville

Proposed Russian River Watershed Pathogen TMDL 

TMDL is the daily level of pathogens in the river, with limits set by the state and county to ensure the health of the Russian River. TheT MDL Action Plan is intended to create guidelines to reduce pathogens in the water, such as E. Coli, created largely by human fecal matter, and to ensure protection for public health.

Should the Water board adopt the Action Plan, it will be incorporated into theWater Quality Control Plan for the North Coast Region, also known as the Basin Plan.

“The Water Board identified three different causes for pathogens; number one is the OWTS (Onsite Wastewater Treatment Systems); number two, homeless encampments, and three is agricultural runoff,” Fourth District Supervisor James Gore said. “Eighty percent of the problem they see is septic systems.”

The Fitch Mountain area is among those most affected by the plan, but the Fifth District will be hit hardest in areas such as Monte Rio, Villa Grande, Northwood and Camp Meeker.

Regulation of septic systems within 600 feet of the waterway are covered under AB885, a statewide policy adopted in 2012 that requires the development of an Advanced Protection Management Program(APMP) establishing minimum standards and requirements for those OWTS.

The problem persists

Problems with waste treatment and disposal in the Russian River watershed have been ongoing for decades.

“This has been an ongoing process since the 1920s with no solutions,” Fifth District supervisor Lynda Hopkins said. “In the 1980s, the county built sewers, but that funding stream has gone away.”

Recent efforts to clean up the River and upgrade septic systems go back to 2005, when the state pushed for OWTS upgrades to be in place by 2009.

In 2012, the Russian River watershed was listed under the Clean Water Act Section 303(d), which led to more study and the establishment of TMDLs.

This TMDL establishes requirements for assessments of individual OWTS and a requirement that all OWTS receive a basic operational inspection at least every five years.

High cost of compliance

Previous actions by the Water Board have led to universal outcries from citizens concerned with the costs of upgrading septic systems, which could run into tens of thousands of dollars for repairs and hundreds of dollars annually to test and maintain systems.

According to the draft Action Plan, individual systems can cost as much as $10,000 for a new OWTS, while a new system for a restaurant can run as high as $80,000. A school with about 700 students that needs to replace its OWTS could spend as much as $151,000.

That does not even take into consideration the costs of site evaluation, professional reports and fees to the Water Board, which could near $10,000, according to the report.

The Water Board “acknowledge(s) that it will be difficult and/or expensive for some OWTS to comply with the APMP requirements,” but said its staff has been working with the county to apply for grant funding to provide public funding assistance for OWTS upgrades in the communities of Monte Rio, Camp Meeker, Northwood and Villa Grande.

Similar efforts are expected to take place in the future for other River communities, but owners of OWTS affected by the TMDL are ultimately responsible for complying with the Action Plan.

“This is a huge deal and affects 10,000 property owners,” Hopkins said. “It could potentially cost $10s to $100s of millions to fix so it is essential for people to get involved. We need time to make sure property owners are not priced out of their homes.

“The Water Board has been meeting with stakeholders to make sure this is as painless as possible,” she added. “But it’s going to be a long process.”

Senior Water Resource Control Engineer Charles E. Reed said although most sources of human fecal waste are adequately regulated, other sources need more control, including homeless encampments, discharges from wastewater holding ponds, dairies, recreational users and non-dairy livestock.

“The TMDL Action Plan identifies those additional controls,” Reed said. “The APMP focuses on identifying and fixing failing and substandard OWTS and ensuring that all OWTS within the APMP perform adequately over the long-term and are quickly identified when they are nearing (the end of) their useful life.”

Who’s in charge?

Various agencies must also wrangle with jurisdictional issues, as several entities exert control over different aspects of River usage, from Sonoma County Parks to the Human Services Department, which is attempting to address homeless issues along the lower River.

“We’ve entered into an MOU with Sonoma County that describes how Sonoma County PRMD, the Sonoma County Community Development Commission, and the Regional Water Board will implement the TMDL Action Plan for OWTS, homeless encampments and recreational water users,” Reed said. “It is our hope that the local agencies will develop creative ways to provide technical and financial assistance to OWTS owners within their jurisdictions.”

Gore believes it will take a “call to action” on the scale of such programs as “Keep Tahoe Blue,” a decades-long movement dedicated to preserving Lake Tahoe.

“What is our long-term vision five to 10 years down the road?” he asked. “First, we need a realistic timeline and support so it doesn’t put people out of their homes.”

Both gore and Hopkins agree that “every solution has to be on the table,” including the possibility of new sewer systems that could cost millions of dollars to build.

But in the end, both supervisors have to look at what is best for the community.

“This is not about ‘big, bad government,’ but that the Russian River should not be used as a sewer,” Gore said. “It is our responsibility to manage our own shit, so let’s get down to business and find ways to make it reasonable.”

Upcoming action and comment period

The Regional Water Board will consider the TMDL Action Plan at the board meeting on Dec. 12-13, 2017.

The draft Action Plan, draft Staff Report, including the draft SED are available for public review and comment and can be downloaded from the Regional Water Board’s website at

The documents can also be viewed by contacting or going to the Regional Water Board’s office at 5550 Skylane Blvd., Ste. A, Santa Rosa, California weekdays from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. or calling by 707-576-2220.

Persons wishing to comment on the draft Action Plan and draft staff report, including draft SED, are invited to submit comments in writing. To be evaluated and responded to by the Regional Water Board, and fully considered in advance of the hearing, all written comments and evidence must be received by the Regional Water Board no later than 5 p.m. on Friday, Sept. 29.

Transmit comments electronically to the attention of Alydda Mangelsdorf at the Regional Water Board at Comments can also be faxed to 707-523-0135 or mailed to the California Regional Water Quality Control Board - North Coast Region, ATTN: Alydda Mangelsdorf, 5550 Skylane Blvd., Suite A, Santa Rosa, California 95403. Persons wishing to present oral comments may attend the hearing and present oral comments.


Area designated for protection - Advanced Protection Management Plan (APMP) in the Russian River Watershed Basaemap

Advance Protection Management Program for OWTS

The draft TMDL Action Plan provides information and requirements specific to owners of Onsite Waste Treatment Systems (OWTS) in the Russian River Watershed.  Of particular importance is the definition of the geographic boundary of the Advanced Protection Management Program (APMP).  The draft TMDL Action Plan defines the Russian River Watershed APMP boundary to include both:

  1. The area within 600 linear feet from the top of the bank in the horizontal (map) direction on either side of the entire Russian River mainstem and
  2. The area within 600 linear feet from the top of the bank in the horizontal (map) direction on either side of any mapped waterbody in sub-watersheds where parcel densities are greater than 50 parcels per square mile.  Sub-watersheds, defined as Hydrologic Units Code 12 basin names, with parcel densities greater than 50 parcels per square mile include the following: Brooks Creek, Dutch Bill Creek, East Fork Russian River, Green Valley Creek, Lower Laguna de Santa Rosa, Lower Santa Rosa Creek, Mark West Creek, Porter Creek, Salt Hollow Creek, Upper Laguna de Santa Rosa, Upper Santa Rosa Creek, Ward Creek-Austin Creek, and Windsor Creek.

The draft TMDL Action Plan describes the requirements that may be applicable to any parcel that is wholly or partially within the APMP boundary, pending a decision of the Regional Water Board. To evaluate whether a given property is wholly or partially within the APMP boundary, an interactive mapping tool has been developed.  The interactive mapping tool allows an interested party to search for a given parcel using an address or APN. Click the link below to access the interactive map.  A disclaimer indicates that the interactive map is for informational purposes, only.

[Interactive map with an address or assessor parcel number (APN) look-up menu]


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