UPDATE: Stricter septic rules hit riverside property owners

County hearing next week on septic regulations

Sonoma County supervisors are set to vote next month on controversial new rules intended to help reduce Russian River pollution associated with substandard septic systems along the length of river.

But critics of Sonoma County’s new Onsite Wastewater Treatment System (OWTS) regulations say the tighter rules could result in some houses becoming uninhabitable and may worsen the county’s housing crunch exacerbated by last year’s wildfire destruction.

And, although much of the heat generated by the proposed rules comes from lower Russian River communities, the new regulations will also affect riverside property owners in the north county as the meandering river skirts Geyserville, Healdsburg and Windsor before it reaches northern Forestville.

“They could be condemning properties” when the new rules go into effect this year, said Guerneville Realtor Herman Hernandez. “If you have a rental property that you have to bring up to code and you have to double the rent to offset the cost of a new septic system, then you’ve just eliminated an affordable rental home.”

The absence of designated government financial assistance to help low-income property owners comply with potentially costly mandatory septic upgrades has been a key sticking point in implementing the new state and county regulations.

“If you’re on a fixed income and you can’t do it, where do you find potential financial assistance?” asked Hernandez.

In some cases homeowners and rental property landlords could be looking at a $70,000 bill to bring a residential property into compliance with the new health regulations, say real estate agents and property owners familiar with the potential high cost of repairing or replacing antiquated and often unpermitted septic systems near the Russian River and its tributaries.

Alarm over the potential consequences of the new regulations has real estate agents urging a big turnout when the supervisors discuss adoption of the regulations at a May 22 public hearing.

The hearing had been scheduled for May 8 but was pushed back two weeks so residents will have more time to review the proposed revisions to the county’s OWTS manual, said Fifth District Supervisor Lynda Hopkins.

“I requested two more weeks for people to review the materials prior to the hearing,” said Hopkins. The lower river’s worries “aren’t exaggerated,” said Hopkins, who inherited the OWTS controversy from prior west county supervisors going back through the terms of Efren Carrillo and Mike Reilly.

The county is now playing an intermediary role trying to facilitate local compliance with the newly evolving statewide rules governing OWTS, said Hopkins.

“We didn’t make the rules, but we have to follow the rules,” said Hopkins. “The state guidelines really don’t work very well on the lower Russian River and in the west county along the Laguna de Santa Rosa.”

For example, the new regs will require a two-foot separation between groundwater and a septic system, a condition that “is not really achievable for much of the lower Russian River valley and the Laguna,” said Hopkins. “That makes it incredibly difficult to implement any kind of affordable system.”

Residents of Healdsburg’s Fitch Mountain neighborhood and downstream neighbors on the river in Summerhome Park and Hacienda are also asking state and county officials for a smoother transition into this “new era of OWTS regulation in Sonoma County,” according to a letter from the OWTS Residents of the Russian River that says it represents the “non-sewer-served riverfront communities of the lower Russian River.”

If the new regulations are approved, “there will no longer be any voluntary repairs for septic system or failed leach systems,” said river residents Kyla Brooke, Susan Packer and Rich Holmer in a recent letter to the county. “New replacement systems will require a two-foot separation to groundwater, proof of adequate soil and must be designed by a licensed engineer. The average cost for a replacement system may run between $35,000 and possibly up to $70,000.”

Older substandard septic systems, such as cesspools, won’t be acceptable under the new rules, according to real estate agents and property owners affected by the tighter regulations.

“Small lots on steep slopes close to the river are going to be in trouble,” said Kyla Brooke, a Villa Grande resident and member of the OWTS Residents of the Russian River.

State estimates indicate that 10,000 septic systems may need upgrades in the Russian River watershed and 5,000 might have to be replaced to bring the properties into compliance with modern health and building codes.

Homes and businesses in Monte Rio, Healdsburg’s Fitch Mountain area and hundreds of other residences near the Russian River in Forestville, Summer Home Park and Hacienda will be affected by the coming regulations to bring older, substandard septic systems into compliance.

The state and local septic system policy, established several years ago by state Assembly Bill 885, applies to the state’s estimated 1.2 million existing septic systems and to all new septic system installations. In Sonoma County there are now about 53,000 onsite septic systems, according to state figures.

The revised manual is available online at the Sonoma County Permit and Resource Management Department (Permit Sonoma) at the Board of Supervisors website.