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Too little (but not too late) for the Petaluma River

San Francisco Baykeeper Update

Updated: On March 17, 2020, Baykeeper further challenged the Regional Board’s flawed plan before the oversight agency, urging the State Water Board to reject the plan as inadequate. Baykeeper’s scientists maintain that the Petaluma River is currently so contaminated with bacteria that people will get sick swimming and paddling in the waters, and our lawyers contend that the plan fails to hold accountable all of the sewage polluters along the River.

In 1975, scientists found that the Petaluma River was so heavily contaminated with E. Coli and other bacteria that it was unsafe to have any contact with the water. The presumed sources of the bacteria included animal and human waste running off of ranches, stables, farmland, and out of broken waste water treatment and septic systems.

Today, little has changed. The Petaluma River remains dangerously contaminated, with high levels of bacteria showing up in every single water test taken in the river.

Despite the findings nearly 45 years ago, the agency responsible for protecting the watershed—the San Francisco Bay Regional Water Quality Control Board—waited until 2019 to address the Petaluma’s troubling bacteria levels.

And unfortunately, the Water Board’s new plan doesn’t take the right steps to reduce bacteria pollution in the Petaluma. The Clean Water Act mandates that agencies start by identifying the specific sources under a regulatory strategy known as a Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL).

Though the Water Board is calling their new policy a TMDL, it doesn’t establish where the bacteria pollution is coming from, by how much the bacteria sources must be reduced, or how progress will be monitored and enforced.

“It’s misleading for the Water Board to call this a TMDL, and their approach is doomed to take decades to solve the problem,” says Baykeeper Staff Attorney Ben Eichenberg. “While Baykeeper appreciates the Board’s stated goal of making water quality in the Petaluma River better, the agency is failing its actual obligation to make the river truly safe for people.”

The Petaluma River feeds into creeks across the North Bay and Marin, and eventually connects with San Francisco Bay. It attracts boaters, paddle boarders, kayakers, and anglers.

If cleaned up, this beautiful waterway could become a world-class destination for water sports enthusiasts and shoreline activities of all kinds, while contributing to a healthier San Francisco Bay.

As the Petaluma River TMDL heads to the EPA for a final review, Baykeeper will continue to push for a smarter approach. We can’t let another 45 years go by before it’s safe to swim in the Petaluma.

Source: https://baykeeper.org/blog/too-little-not-too-late-petaluma-river

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Full of it: Keeping horse manure out of the Petaluma River

San Francisco Baykeeper

One of the largest horse boarding facilities in the country lies on the banks of the Petaluma River (pictured, above). For years, there’s been nothing to stop the horse manure from flowing straight into the river and downstream to San Francisco Bay.

Manure runoff contains unlawfully high levels of bacteria, nitrogen, ammonia, phosphorus, and toxins, all of which are hazardous to public health and wildlife.

“Dangerous levels of bacteria have shown up in every water sample from the Petaluma River taken by agencies since the 1970s,” says Baykeeper Staff Attorney Ben Eichenberg. “We suspected that the fouled runoff from hundreds of horses at Sonoma Horse Park had contributed to the problem.”

Last rainy season, Baykeeper scientists conducted an extensive field investigation in the area. Our water sampling confirmed that runoff from Sonoma Horse Park was indeed contaminated and flowing into the Petaluma River and nearby wetlands.

Despite the fact that the Petaluma has the potential to be an idyllic recreational resource for the community, the river has a long history of neglect from government regulators.

The pollution is particularly troublesome since the Petaluma is critical habitat for many protected species, such as steelhead trout, Chinook salmon, longfin smelt, and green sturgeon, as well as the California brown pelican. Too much phosphorous and nitrogen in the water causes algae to thrive, which drains vital oxygen and suffocates fish.

That’s why Baykeeper filed a lawsuit under the Clean Water Act. We now have a legally binding agreement with the owner of Sonoma Horse Park to stop the facility’s manure and other pollutants from flowing into the river.

Under our agreement, the facility will use a large pond to capture runoff before it enters the river, contain and cover all of its manure piles, and implement other pollution controls as needed to prevent manure from contaminating the environment. In addition, Sonoma Horse Park agreed to direct $40,000 to the Rose Foundation for Communities & the Environment to mitigate damage caused by its past pollution. The Rose Foundation will award these funds to other local nonprofits for specific projects to restore the watershed.

We’ll keep monitoring to make sure the new runoff controls at the horse park are effectively stopping pollution—to give the Petaluma River a fighting chance at being a healthy and safe waterway for local communities and wildlife.

Source: https://baykeeper.org/blog/full-it-keeping-horse-manure-out-petaluma

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Waste deep: Petaluma River awash in bacteria

Will Carruthers, THE BOHEMIAN

The river winding through downtown Petaluma might be the city’s single most defining feature. The city’s annual Rivertown Revival Festival features views of the river and, farther south, recreationists use the water for entertainment and exercise every day.

Yet, since 1975, the state has designated the water a contaminated water body due to excessive levels of bacteria tied to fecal matter. The river has also been included on the list for excessive amounts of pesticides, trash and sediment at other times.

Now, a state water oversight board may pass a plan laying out the steps to lower the levels of bacteria in the river and its watershed.

At a Wednesday, Nov. 13 meeting in Oakland, the San Francisco Bay Regional Water Quality Control Board will consider approving an amendment to the board’s water quality control plan for the region, a document known as a basin plan. The proposed amendment will set a cap on the amount of fecal indicator bacteria in the river’s watershed—the TMDL—and identify actions required to reach that goal.

The federal Clean Water Act requires the state to create the cap and cleanup plan, known as a Total Maximum Daily Load [TMDL].

Staff members working for the water board, one of nine similar regional bodies tasked with setting water quality rules in California, have been assembling the Petaluma River plan for several years, according to Farhad Ghodrati, an environmental scientist with the San Francisco Bay board.

Although there are over 100 potentially dangerous bacteria related to fecal matter, scientists generally only test for a few varieties. These “fecal indicator bacteria,” including E. Coli, are a sign that animal waste has contaminated the water body. If those levels are above the bar set by the water quality control board, they add the water body to a list of “impaired” waterways.

Read more at https://www.bohemian.com/northbay/waste-deep/Content?oid=9360941

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Extra-low summer flow in the Russian River proposed by Water Agency

Brenda Adelman, SONOMA COUNTY GAZETTE
Ready, set, go! Sonoma County Water Agency (SCWA) is off and running towards permanently lowering minimum Russian River summer flows forever. Once this occurs, the risk of water quality degradation that includes increased algae and possibly toxic algae, is a virtual certainty, along with all the other problems that entails. The river now suffers from excessive temperatures and excessive phosphorus and the only condition holding algae somewhat in check is summer flows.
Yet the Biological Opinion requires minimum flows in the lower river to be cut by as much as 50% between May 15th and October 15th. Minimum summer flows at Hacienda were historically set at 125 cubic feet per second (cfs); the proposed change can bring that down as low as 60 cfs.
Not only is algae likely to increase at that level, but any other unmonitored and unregulated toxins in the river can become more concentrated and also provide greater risk.
Biological Opinion set the stage…
The Biological Opinion was released by National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) in 2008. It described Russian River habitat changes needed to compensate for possible degradation caused by Sonoma County Water Agency’s water supply operations from their two dams and reservoirs (Lake Mendocino and Lake Sonoma) and other operations.
Two salmonid fish species had been named in the late 1990’s as threatened (Chinook and steelhead), a third as endangered (coho), and as a result, the Endangered Species Act kicked in and the Biological Opinion is Federal Law. To our knowledge, it never considered other laws, such as the Clean Water Act, that govern water quality.
The Biological Opinion was never released for public input and response, nor addressed project impacts on the lower river between Dry Creek confluence and Duncans Mills. It was a result of a multi-year consultation between The Army Corps of Engineers (ACOE), the Sonoma County Water Agency (SCWA), California Fish and Wildlife, and National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS). It was released and no changes were possible. We assume that any impacts addressed in this document will be mitigated without significant change to required flow reductions.
Fish Flow Project EIR…
While this current EIR by SCWA does give the opportunity for input, and comments will be responded to, and Directors (Supervisors) will ultimately decide on the adequacy of the EIR, we are not sure if there is a way to stop the project, as SCWA has virtually indicated that fulfilment of the requirements is mandatory in order to continue their operations and water sales.
Their Urban Water Management Plan states on page 1-4, “The Water Agency must implement the following general categories to avoid jeopardy and maintain the “Incidental Take Statement” provided in the Biological Opinion: Modifying minimum instream flows in the Russian River and Dry Creek.” (other items were also listed including changes to Estuary Management).
Yet, in the last seven years, SCWA attempts to implement the Estuary Project (create a fresh water lagoon for juvenile steelhead) barely succeeded once.
NMFS has failed to manage tributary flows needed by salmonids…
Rather than try to control the ever dynamic mouth of the Russian River, NMFS’s intentions may have been better served by focusing on the historical culprit for fish habitat loss, property owner draw down of summer creek flows (especially vineyards), where salmonids liked to spawn. (Many spawning creeks such as Mark West now dry up in summer.)
Instead, NMFS proposed a habitat management plan to create a fresh water lagoon in the Estuary by lowering flows throughout the lower river and establishing a channel that somehow blocks sea water from getting in and allows fresh water to slowly seep out. For seven years, the project has mostly failed, yet they are moving forward to permanent status anyway. (Conditions are seldom right to construct the channel appropriately.)
Saved water will serve new development in urban areas…
This proposal will allow more water to be stored in the reservoirs for water contractors to fulfill their general plan projections for new development. In fact, the recent 2015 Urban Water Management Plan stated that flows must be lowered or SCWA can be held responsible for takings of the fish (see above) and could lose their water rights as a result. We can’t help but wonder what consideration has been given to those laws that protect water quality.
Schedule of meetings and due dates…
Only one of the three listed species will benefit from the Estuary project (steelhead trout) and the Chinook may even suffer further decline from the lowered flows during their juvenile migration in spring (downstream) and adult migration in fall (upstream), because of higher temperatures, and excessive phosphorus. We hope many people will participate in this process.
Here’s the meeting and comment schedule: 

  • August 19th, Sonoma County Water Agency (SCWA) will release Environmental Impact Report (EIR)
  • August 24th there will be an “Open House” (information available but not a group meeting) at Monte Rio Community Center from 4-8 pm and in Cloverdale at Vets on August 22nd at same time.
  • September 13th is the big hearing before the Directors (Supervisors) in their Santa Rosa Chambers beginning at 3 pm. Please try to attend. This will probably be only opportunity to express concerns directly and give oral comments on document.

Source: Russian River Flow and Fish

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Toxic redux?

Read more at: Toxic Redux?

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Contaminated water found in Rohnert Park subdivision 

Derek Moore, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
Blaise Turek looked forward to taking a hot shower after he and his wife returned home from vacation in mid-December. But when he turned the faucet on, brownish water with a putrid stench flowed out.
“The smell was off the charts,” he said.
Almost a month later, the Tureks and more than a dozen other property owners in the Canon Manor West neighborhood just east of Rohnert Park are still dealing with fallout from contamination in their water wells.
County health officials this week revealed that 17 of 31 residential wells tested in the development south of Sonoma State University are ridden with potentially harmful bacteria, including E. coli in seven of the contaminated water sources. Besides ordering residents to discontinue using the wells, officials will be sending letters to every property owner in the 257-acre development warning them of the problem and urging precautions.
“I think it’s an urgency,” said Karen Holbrook, the county’s deputy health officer. “People should be aware that they are potentially drinking water that’s not safe.”
More than a public health concern, the well contamination in Canon Manor West highlights longstanding disputes in several Sonoma County neighborhoods over water rights and responsibility for ensuring that the water is safe.
Holbrook on Wednesday said the consensus among county officials and those from the city of Rohnert Park — which maintains a sewer line in Canon Manor West — is that failing septic systems and surface water contamination are to blame for the well problems.
Several residents, however, accuse the county of using the current crisis as an excuse to enforce an ordinance requiring Canon Manor West residents to hook up to public water and sewer lines, abandon and destroy septic systems and to discontinue well use for domestic purposes.
Read more at: Contaminated water found in Rohnert Park subdivision | The Press Democrat

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E. coli contamination in wells near Rohnert Park prompts alert

Derek Moore, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
Sonoma County officials fanned out in the Canon Manor neighborhood east of Rohnert Park this week warning dozens of residents that water drawn from private wells may be contaminated with E. coli and fecal coliform bacteria.
Two wells outside homes in the neighborhood near Sonoma State University already have tested positive for what county officials called “extremely high” levels of the two strains of bacteria. The county ordered the property owners to discontinue using the wells, which are in the 1700 block of Lynn Drive. The owners have subsequently hooked up to a system operated by the Penngrove/Kenwood Water Co.
County health officials stressed that there have been no reports of anyone being sickened from drinking or using water from contaminated wells in Canon Manor. Symptoms of E. coli infection include abdominal distress and headaches. It’s unknown whether the contamination also includes potentially deadly strains of the bacteria as the county’s lab tests are not that specific, according to Karen Holbrook, the county’s deputy health officer.
“We’re acting out of an abundance of caution,” she said.
The county first received a complaint about sewage odors emanating from a well Dec. 18 from a property owner on Lynn Drive. Tests of wells on two adjacent properties revealed the presence of more than 2,419 colonies of E. coli and fecal coliform in a 100-milliliter sampling of water. There are no safe levels for either bacteria.
Read more at: E. coli contamination in wells near Rohnert Park | The Press Democrat