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Local environmentalist wins recognition from North Coast Water Board

Carol Benfell, SONOMA COUNTY GAZETTE

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.”

Source: https://www.sonomacountygazette.com/sonoma-county-news/brenda-adelman-water-russian-river-advocat-wins-recognition-from-water-board

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Sonoma Valley wastewater spill totals 2 million gallons

Guy Kovner, PRESS DEMOCRAT

A faulty valve caused the accidental release of about 2 million gallons of untreated wastewater into a slough in Sonoma Valley, a county water official said Saturday.

The valve on a pipeline in the Sonoma Valley County Sanitation District failed to fully close and was leaking wastewater for about 24 hours into Schell Slough, said Ann DuBay, a Sonoma Water spokeswoman. The flow was stopped at 10:45 a.m. Saturday, she said.

State and regional authorities were notified, and specialists sent to the spill site did not notice any dead or distressed fish or other species, DuBay said.

The valve is part of a system that collects wastewater from the equivalent of about 17,000 Sonoma Valley homes. The wastewater is treated at a plant on Eighth Street East, near the city of Sonoma.

Source: https://www.pressdemocrat.com/news/9166172-181/sonoma-valley-wastewater-spill-totals?sba=AAS

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Santa Rosa lifts 11-month water quality advisory in Fountaingrove neighborhood

Will Schmitt, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

Water in Santa Rosa’s fire-ravaged Fountaingrove neighborhood is safe for drinking and bathing, city officials said Thursday.

The city lifted the water quality advisory in place since the historic Tubbs wildfire in October 2017 melted water pipes in the hilly neighborhood and contaminated sections of the water system with benzene, which can cause cancer.

Residents living in the advisory area of Fountaingrove, where about 1,600 homes burned in the most destructive fire in California history, will get individual notices from the city about the water safety.

Recent water tests in the neighborhood showed traces of benzene, but at levels lower than state-mandated safety limits. The city said in a statement “the water continues to meet all state and federal standards for safe drinking water.”

Water testing will continue for at least a year to ensure safe water conditions, city officials said. Jennifer Burke, the city’s deputy director of water resources, said the city will continue sharing with residents the results from subsequent tests.

Read more at https://www.pressdemocrat.com/news/8831902-181/santa-rosa-lifts-11-month-water?utm_source=boomtrain&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=pd_breaking&bt_ee=ssS4Wcl06w1x64k%2BtZMmX%2BzEwBUjXHTsSHurR5xa67tWNhTRKSRsfi7NO1zRPptg&bt_ts=1539291227551

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River otters populations rebounding in Sonoma

Kevin McCallum, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

River otters are making a comeback in Sonoma County and across the Bay Area thanks in part to improved water quality and habitat restoration projects, according to ecologists.

In recognition of last week’s World Otter Day, local otter fans are hosting a Saturday lecture and series of kids’ activities at the Petaluma Regional Library from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m.

The message of the lecture will be one of resiliency and recovery, said Megan Isadore, executive director of the River Otter Ecology Project, which is hosting the North Bay event. A second event is also taking place in the South Bay.

Pollution of the San Francisco Bay and surrounding waterways decimated river otters during the middle of the last century, Isadore said, causing them to retreat to less polluted areas.

Read more at http://www.pressdemocrat.com/news/8385938-181/river-otters-populations-rebounding-in

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Sonoma County to seek half-year extension on controversial septic system changes

J.D. Morris, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

Sonoma County officials will ask state regulators for more time to craft new rules governing the estimated 45,000-plus septic systems in the county’s unincorporated areas after facing resistance from rural residents who feared the changes could force them to undertake costly and unnecessary upgrades.

The Board of Supervisors decided Tuesday to seek a six-month extension so county leaders can gather more community input and address concerns raised by homeowners, many of them from along the Russian River and on Fitch Mountain outside Healdsburg.

Supervisor Lynda Hopkins embraced the idea of an extension, expressing sympathy toward some of the criticisms raised by residents in her west county district. Hopkins advocated for more flexibility in the standards, which as proposed could require more expensive evaluations of replacement septic projects, among other changes intended to prevent wastewater systems from contaminating local watersheds.

Read more at: http://www.pressdemocrat.com/news/8353308-181/sonoma-county-to-seek-half-year

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Bioremediation efforts mushroom in the aftermath of California’s North Bay fires

Dani Burlison, EARTH ISLAND JOURNAL

Fifty miles north of the Golden Gate Bridge, California’s Sonoma County is famous for its wine-country image — a patchwork of picturesque rolling hills and vineyards graced with moderate temperatures all year round. Beyond the grapes and quaint roadside tasting rooms, oak woodlands rich with black oak, Douglas fir, madrone, and California laurel provide habitat for abundant wildlife and ecological services like erosion control and water filtration to the surrounding area. Typically hot and dry from midsummer through late fall, these woodlands also comprise an ideal environment for wildfires. It was here that flames ignited on the evening of October 8, 2017, fueled by winds of 50 miles per hour.

The fires, which also erupted in neighboring Napa and Mendocino Counties, spread quickly, reaching residential areas in the city of Santa Rosa late at night. Flames devoured nearly 250 square miles of open space and urban development, including 6,000 homes and business structures. The Tubbs, Nuns, and Pocket Fires also claimed more than 20 lives in Sonoma County, and sent a cloud of toxic ash over a wide stretch of the San Francisco Bay Area for weeks. Local ecologists promptly took action, driven by concerns about chemicals seeping into the region’s farmlands and streams, the Russian River, and eventually the Pacific Ocean.

“The concern about the toxic ash and fire runoff was becoming a priority,” says Erik Ohlsen, a Sonoma County ecologist and founder of the Permaculture Skills Center in Sebastopol. But, “the time frame was so small, the window was so small to do anything — how do you deploy on a scale that matches the scale of the fire, and process and strategize to catch and filter all that toxic ash?”

Ohlsen is part of the grassroots Fire Mediation Action Coalition that formed in response to widespread fire damage. In the aftermath of the fire, this group of ecologists, organic farmers, wildlife biologists, and residents discussed the probability of heavy metals, PCBs, dioxines, and a multitude of other chemicals contained in the ash contaminating local creeks, drinking water, and soil. Given the nearly 600,000 acres of agricultural land in Sonoma County, preventing chemicals from contaminating farms and vineyards was considered critical and urgent.

Read more at http://www.earthisland.org/journal/index.php/elist/eListRead/bioremediation_mushroom_aftermath_californias_north_bay_fires/

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More benzene found in Santa Rosa water tests after Sonoma County fires

Kevin McCallum, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

Benzene, the cancer-causing chemical that city officials believe was sucked into its water system in a heavily burned area of Fountaingrove, is continuing to be discovered outside the advisory area, including one place in Coffey Park, city officials acknowledged for the first time this week.

But officials insist the new findings are not an indication the problems in Fountaingrove are migrating to other parts of the city.

However, they have now found 20 locations outside the Fountaingrove advisory zone with elevated levels of benzene. Fourteen of the locations were identified in the last month after the city aggressively expanded its testing program.

All but one — a burned lot on Waring Court in Coffey Park — were located near the advisory zone in Fountaingrove.

City officials said the new problems have been easy to resolve, confirming their conclusion that the 184-acre advisory area in Fountaingrove has a unique and pervasive problem far different than any other area of the city.

Read more at http://www.pressdemocrat.com/news/8140783-181/more-benzene-found-in-santa?ref=most

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Fountaingrove water system needs $43 million replacement due to contamination after Sonoma County fires

Kevin McCallum, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

The entire water-delivery system in a 184-acre section of the devastated Fountaingrove neighborhood will likely need replacement after becoming contaminated with benzene, and it appears the city will initially be on the hook for a project whose estimated costs have soared to $43 million.

The intensive investigation into the exact cause of the contamination continues, but officials say they now understand how the cancer-causing hydrocarbon found in gasoline and plastics made it into the water mains in the area.

The city’s team of water engineers, consultants and regulators is “converging on the recommended approach” that would require the “full replacement of the distribution system, from the water mains to the meters on the properties” and related equipment like fire hydrants within the advisory area, Ben Horenstein, director of Santa Rosa Water, said Thursday.

The cost of that solution, which Horenstein had previously estimated at up to $20 million, has now more than doubled, and completion may take significantly longer than the year he initially hoped.

The development raises a host of questions about how quickly the devastated Fountaingrove neighborhood, which lost 1,420 homes in the Tubbs fire, may be able to recover, how the city can fund the needed repairs, and what it means for residents who still live there.

Read more at http://www.pressdemocrat.com/news/8144221-181/city-fountaingrove-water-system-needs

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Benzene found outside Fountaingrove contamination area

Kevin McCallum, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

Santa Rosa may be zeroing in on the cause of the contamination in the water supply of the devastated Fountaingrove neighborhood, but there are also troubling signs that the problem may extend beyond the immediate advisory area.

Since Jan. 24, when the city last released detailed test results, the city has found 58 additional instances of benzene in the drinking water in the Fountaingrove area. The vast majority came from the 184-acre area north and south of Fountain Grove Parkway around Fir Ridge Drive, an area once home to 350 families. Only 13 homes remain following the October wildfires.

Residents of the area have been under a strict advisory for months to not drink or boil the water while the city tries to find the source of the contamination and fix the problem, something that could cost upwards of $20 million if the area’s water system needs replacement.

But a handful of tests have recently detected benzene in areas outside the advisory zone, a new development that may complicate the 3-month-long hunt for the cause of the contamination.

In response, the city is launching a more aggressive regimen of water tests covering all the burned areas of the city, including Coffey Park, in its effort to make sure other burn zones aren’t experiencing similar problems.

Read more at http://www.pressdemocrat.com/news/8025423-181/benzene-found-outside-fountaingrove-contamination

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Water contamination plagues surviving homes in Santa Rosa's Fountaingrove neighborhood

Kevin McCallum, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
Santa Rosa officials are scrambling to figure out why the drinking water in a wildfire-ravaged section of Fountaingrove is contaminated with a chemical commonly found in plastics and gasoline.
A team of local water quality officials, regulators and experts has been working for 2½ months to understand how the volatile hydrocarbon benzene is getting into the water system and how to fix the problem.
They suspect the heat of the Tubbs fire, which incinerated 1,400 homes in the area, may have damaged parts of the water delivery system, such as plastic water pipes or meters, and caused the dangerous carcinogen to leech into the neighborhood’s water supply.
But despite hundreds of water tests, detailed mapping of the results and targeted equipment replacement, the problem still persists, leaving officials confounded and a $20 million replacement of the water system a real possibility.
Read more at http://www.pressdemocrat.com/news/7914293-181/water-contamination-plagues-surviving-homes?ref=most