Albion Monitor /Features

Hostages in the Sewer Wars

by Lois Pearlman

With federal grants at stake, the county is forcing 300 homes to hookup at costs up to $25,000

High above the Russian River, Thomas Smith sits in the main room of his small house, polishing a work tool and reflecting on choices that lie before him. "Having to deal with this whole business is hard for me," says the 25-year resident. "I don't know if I could stay here. I might lose my home."

Smith -- not his real name -- owns his vintage wooden home outright and lives a simple and frugal lifestyle. What misfortune could force him to leave? A sudden illness, perhaps, or unexpected debts? Nope; he worries about an expected county ordinance requiring him to connect his home to the Guerneville sewer plant -- at a cost, he estimates, three times more than his annual income.

Smith and about 300 other homeowners in Guerneville and Rio Nido are innocent bystanders in a political quagmire that began 25 years ago.

On one side there's the EPA, demanding the county return millions of federal dollars. Your wastewater plant is too big, says the agency; sign up more users (read: Smith and the unfortunate 300) or return up to $4 million.

The county -- loathe to repay money already spent -- passed an ordinance on September 17 to requiring hookups, and few doubt they'll vote against it. Particularly at a time when the district's asking for over $5 million more -- because, experts claim, the plant's too small and must be expanded.

The county and the EPA are just the biggest players in the drama. Throw in the usual number of consultants, politicians, and experts accused of deceit by community activists, a few million dollar lawsuits and countersuits involving contractors over the years, and the saga of the Russian River sanitation plant includes as many plots and subplots as a TV soap opera.

Some activists in neighboring communities even suggest that it's a plot to throw West County open to development.

It's all climaxing in a fitful showdown this month (September), and the losers are likely to be Smith and the others. Needed or not, their homes will be required by law to hook into the big pipe at a cost of $12,000 - $25,000, not counting yearly fees, which will climb to $835 within seven years.

Mike Cale admits that the county had some "culpability for what happened out there"

Because of his extremely low income, Smith hopes for county assistance in paying the gigantic and unexpected bill. "I'd love a grant," he says. "Or a loan for the whole thing that I could pay off over 20 years would be OK. I'm high up, you know. It would take a lot of pipe."

Without generous grants, many residents won't be able to afford hookups. Some, like Smith, might have to move; others would have to borrow the money or drain their savings. This is what a group of residents told the County Sanitation District (CSD) Directors -- which are the same people as our Board of Supervisors -- at a late August meeting.

Guerneville homeowner Karen Devan said at that hearing she couldn't pay her stepdaughter's school tuition because she has to save money to pay for the sewer connection. "I can't afford the fees, and I can't qualify for a grant because I'm not low income," she asked the Supervisors. "What am I going to do?"

Although Devan told Supervisors that she has religiously maintained her home septic system with regular pumping and inspections, she would be forced to abandon it under the ordinance. Devan is right; according to county counsel Prentice Fish, the county would force unwilling homeowners to hookup to the sewer, and then place a lien against their property for the costs.

Stephen Spector, another homeowner with a private septic system, told Supervisors he would have to refinance to comply. Like Devan, he also has a septic system which met the regulations at the time the system was constructed. "Now the consultants say these systems couldn't have been working all these years," says the apparently exasperated resident, referring to a recent county review of the septic systems in the district.

At the end of that August hearing, the Supervisors agreed to give property owners more time to comply with the expensive hookup, which includes a $2,000 county fee -- a sum that Supervisor Ernie Carpenter called "artificially low." (The county permit is officially to be pegged at over $5,000.)

But Sonoma Valley Supervisor Mike Cale emphasized that they had to find a way to help homeowners pay for the connections, admitting that the county had some "culpability for what happened out there."

Carpenter would hear none of it. The county had signed an agreement from the start of the project in the 1970's to force everyone to hookup, he said, and it was time to enforce the agreement.

But the Supervisors do have some responsibility here, and so does the EPA. There's plenty of blame to share -- a whole quarter century's worth, in fact.

It took three years for voter approval, and only after they changed the rules for passage

First established in 1949 as a district of unregulated private disposal systems, it was reconstituted in a 1975 election, when the majority of the district's voters agreed to sell $2.9 million in bonds to finance its share of a sewage plant.

That voters would approve the 1975 bond was by no means guaranteed. Similar bond measures appeared on the 1972 and '73 ballots and both failed. The county applied pressure in 1973; a building moratorium was slapped on the district until the plant went into operation -- property owners couldn't even put an addition on the house. If that wasn't enough to ensure victory the third time around, the district changed the requirements for passage from two-thirds to a simple majority.

The 1975 measure also received support from prominent local citizens and business owners and community groups such as the Russian River Chamber of Commerce and the Russian River Renewal Association, as well as endorsement from the local newspaper, the Russian River News.

Proponents of the sewer system said it would abate the slew of antiquated cesspools and septic systems that were leaking pollution into the area's waterways and groundwater. Opponents countered that the sanitation district had not fully explored other ways to remedy the leaky systems, and that a sewer plant would encourage unwanted development in the rural area.

"I think it was overkill. Most of us ended up paying way more than if we had to redo our septics," recalled Nichae Blume, whose late husband was a leading organizer of the opposition.

Don Head, retired director of the Sonoma County Public Works Department, the agency that was then in charge of county sewage districts, said studies conducted at the time indicated many residential sewage systems were malfunctioning, but most of the documented failures came from businesses. "The gross septic failures occurred in commercial establishments. They were most anxious to connect," said Head.

For violating businesses and homeowners with failing systems, the hookup promised to be a great deal. The connection permit fee was set at $100, and annual costs for a single family dwelling were estimated at approximately $70. Once the sewer plant was completed, recalls Head, "people were [connecting to the sewer] as fast as they could."

Except, of course, for those 300 who thought they didn't need sewer hookup because they had working systems. Likely many took a "wait and see" attitude, expecting that the connections could be made years later at the same bargain rates. They were wrong. Nearly a decade later in 1984, district voters passed a ballot item to maintain the $100 permit fee -- but after the election, the county threw the measure out and ignored the voter's mandate.

EPA contends that the plant is underutilized, and the district has to repay another $2.8 million

That wasn't the first time that county counsel threw out results after election day; there was also measure L, passed in 1982. Concerned about the escalating project costs, voters wanted to put a brake on the district acquiring further debt.

They had good reason to worry. Estimated to cost about $13.6 million in the 1976 EIR, the final bill for the plant was about three times that -- over $35 million. Besides the system and related expenses there were millions in lawsuits and counter-lawsuits involving inadequate work by the original project engineers and the construction company JMM Caputo-Wagner.

Some of those millions came from the state and the district bond issue, but most came from a $26.5 EPA Clean Water Act grant. It is this federal money that has spurred the current showdown. Sonoma County has agreed to pay back $1.2 million, but the EPA also contends that the plant is underutilized, and the district has to repay another $2.8 million. That is, if they don't pass the mandatory connection ordinance by September 30.

On paper, the EPA's right. The plant was sized to serve "maximum daily flow projections based upon peak visitor weekends," according to the 1976 EIR. The projected population for this year was 9,100 people, including permanent residents, weekenders, and tourists. A district report written this summer estimates that the system currently serves a population of about 7,500 -- about 1,600 bodies short of the original estimate.

Is it really too big?

Despite the county's apparent willingness to accept the EPA's verdict that the plant was overbuilt, there are several experts, including the former county official who oversaw the building of the sewage system, who say that the plant is just the right size.

"I don't think it is too large," said retired director Don Head. "The projected flows prepared by the engineer were reviewed by the county and approved by the state. It was designed with the best information available and approved by all the agencies.

"The EPA did it retroactively and said it was too large. I disagree with the conclusion they made. The EPA doesn't offer money to plants that turned out to be too small."

He explained that the capacity of the sewage system was based on water usage in the area, which was hard to estimate because the water system was leaky and the local company didn't keep sufficient records.

Bob Rawson, a sewage system instructor at Santa Rosa Junior College who once ran the Russian River plant, agrees with Head.

"It's at capacity in my view in many ways," he said. It exceeds disposal capacity, exceeds the ability to keep up with sludge pressing, and doesn't have flow equalization at high water times," he said.

Now that the EPA and the district are closer to resolving their money problems, there is "no reason we can't go back and revisit annexation"

But none of that matters to the EPA, according to spokesperson Linda Rawlings, because that agency based its findings only on the treatment portion of the system, which is supposed to have the capacity for processing 750,000 gallons of wastewater per day. Currently the plant is receiving only 400,000 to 450,000 gallons per days.

Rawson rejects that idea as well.

"Some engineer decided it has a capacity of 750,000 gallons per day, but he was wrong," he said.

While county supervisors have heard the argument that the system is not too big, they are willing to accept the EPA's demand for a mandatory connection. Carpenter said the county wrangled with the EPA for two years over this final audit, and this is the best deal it could make.

"It was a two-year process, and many other questions were resolved in our favor," explained Carpenter.

Earlier audits in the 1980's had indicated that the county would have to repay up to $19 million.

Another option for utilizing the alleged excess capacity would be to hook-up areas outside the district boundaries, something the county had been considering in a big way until residents in several of the surrounding communities convinced supervisors that it was a costly and environmentally unsound idea.

Although this "big pipeline" proposal is now on hold, there are some landowners immediately adjacent to the sanitation district who would like the opportunity to annex their properties.

Innkeeper Jim Caron, a co-owner of the Applewood Estate Inn said he and his partner have already shelled out $30,000 to upgrade the septic system for their 16-room bed and breakfast at the edge of Guerneville. They would like to connect to the sewer to keep down future costs.

But Caron said he was rejected when he applied for annexation because "if they let anyone in the federal government would snatch that money."

Carpenter agreed it was true that while the sanitation district and the EPA were negotiating over the grant repayment the federal agency would have confiscated annexation fees, but that situation has come to an end. Now that the EPA and the district are closer to resolving their money problems, there is "no reason we can't go back and revisit annexation."

"But we need to look at it as a whole, to have community meetings and establish an advisory group," said Carpenter.

Or is it too small?

At the same time, the county agency that manages the sanitation district, the Sonoma County Water Agency (SCWA) wants to expand and upgrade the system to the tune of over $5 million, saying the plant's wastewater disposal system is overflowing.

Last summer, the sanitation district sought approval for an expansion project that included purchase of 381 acres of timberlands owned by Louisiana Pacific (LP) next to the sanitation plant. SCWA official Michelle Julene, who is in charge of the project, said the approximately 75 acres the plant uses now for summertime disposal of treated sewage is insufficient, and quick approval of a negative declaration for the project, which also included more piping and storage, would remedy the problem.

But local watchdoggers were skeptical of the plan, saying it was really a plot to hook other communities with failing or substandard sewage systems to the Guerneville plant, open new parcels up for development, and rescue the district from a large reimbursement to the EPA.

The sanitation board (county supervisors) denied that it was anything but an upgrade of the Guerneville system until a September 19, 1995 meeting, when supervisors admitted that a regional system was what they had in mind.

At that meeting and another held last May, local residents convinced supervisors to commission a full EIR for the expansion project, and to limit it to the boundaries of the current Russian River district. Supervisors agreed that other communities, such as Monte Rio and Camp Meeker, could seek more localized solutions to their sewage problems.

As it stands now, the project includes purchase of the LP land for disposal expansion (although Carpenter says LP is not willing to sell a smaller portion of the property). Also included is construction of a 5 million gallon equalization basin to prevent pollution when the Russian River floods the sewage plant, as it did in 1986 and 1994. Other upgrades and improvements will supposedly bring the rest of the system up to its intended capacity of 750,000 gallons per day.

The various elements of the project are calculated to cost a total of $5.3 million, and the EIR alone is estimated at up to $717,000.

A "pseudo-science outcome-oriented report"

As the tug-of-war between county and federal agencies continues over these million of dollars, the lonely 300 homes not connected to the pipe can be seen as an embarrassment to both sides.

The final straw seemed to be an assessment recently completed by Santa Rosa engineering firm Adobe Associates claims that 94 percent of these homes have a high potential for polluting the environment. Watchdog Stephen Spector calls the document a "pseudo-science outcome-oriented report."

SCWA official Mike Thompson admits that the report does not actually say that these systems are failing, but that they are older systems and do not meet current standards. Still, the assessment's results were sufficient to pave the way for the mandatory connection ordinance.

Another household that doesn't want to connect to the sewer is owned by an elderly couple who live in a hilltop home near the Guerneville cemetery. "We've lived here for over 30 years. We went from a wooden box to a modern septic, and we've never had any problems," said the wife. Her husband also defended their septic system, which is a long distance from the river or any smaller creeks or streams.

"By the time the leach lines leach out, you're not about to leach into the river," he explained.

"I think their price is kind of ridiculous, especially if you're retired and on a fixed income," said the wife.

"That takes a good wallop out of your income," agreed the husband. "We would have to borrow to pay."

Like "Thomas Smith," they insisted that their names not be used in this story. And that they won't speak publicly -- about their legal, well-functioning system, because they're afraid of the consequences -- speaks volumes.

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