Recently brought to our attention is the Annual Compliance Report of the California Water Board issued in 2015, which lists the Sonoma County Valley Sanitation District as #2 in raw sewage spills in the State of California for fiscal year 2013-14. This unwelcome distinction is long-standing: the district was found in violation of its Discharge Permit due to deferred repairs all the way back in 1994.
Year after year, our local Sanitation District pays fines to settle violations, well over $700,000 since 1994. Since 2007, the district has spilled 1,239,161 gallons of raw sewage, making it #3 in the state for volume.
Plagued by broken trunk pipelines and connectors, the collection system regularly overflows during periods of heavy rain; groundwater seeps into the collectors and overwhelms the capacity of the pipes, causing overflows from sewer-line manhole covers, raw sewage that runs into creeks and surface water. Plans to repair and upgrade the collection system have been years in the making and some work’s been done. In 1994 the estimated cost to repair 10 miles of lines was $45 million; there’s no telling what the final price will be. Meanwhile, the sewage spills continue.
The district operates the sewage treatment plant on 8th Street East as part of the Sonoma County Water Agency; the Board of Directors of that agency is the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors. The discharge permits are issued by the State of California, San Francisco Regional Water Board, and cover the entire collection and treatment facility. Violations are assessed under provisions of the Clean Water Act and the California Water Code.
Among the provisions in State Order No. R2-2104-0020 governing waste discharge requirements is the district’s “Duty to Mitigate: The Discharger shall take all reasonable steps to minimize or prevent any discharge or sludge use or disposal in violation of this Order that has a reasonable likelihood of adversely affecting human health or the environment.”
Obviously, until the collection system is properly repaired, the district will continue to operate in violation of the State order, and incur additional fines. This raises the question of how much additional sewage the already over-taxed collection system can be forced to accept. As larger development projects are approved, the spills are likely to get bigger and the fines larger. The City of Sonoma should accept its responsibility for approving high-volume sewage generating projects beyond the capacity of the collection system to handle. It makes no sense for one arm of government to simply point the finger at another and say “it’s not our problem.”
One part of a solution is for large developments to absorb a substantial proportion of the costs of sewer collection system repair, but at present this is not required. Accordingly, the ordinary taxpayer ends up covering the cost of system upgrades and fines through payments made with the yearly property tax bill.
Unless provision is made to generate the funds necessary to repair our aged sewer line infrastructure, the spills will get worse and ratepayers will continue to see their payments applied to fines. Until the various city and county agencies of government sit down and hammer out a financial plan and timetable to solve this problem, large development projects should be put on hold.
Sun Editorial Board