Open Mic

Sonoma County’s water woes run deep

By Shepherd Bliss

Water, water everywhere,” Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote. Water is so present that we tend to take it for granted. “But not a drop to drink,” the poet adds.

Coleridge’s words came to mind as I drove up Highway 116 in rural Sebastopol a couple of miles from my small organic farm and passed Elphick Road–another contaminated well site. The North Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board convened a public hearing on Elphick Road in June. Nearly 200 concerned citizens attended–what we learned was not reassuring.

Some wells in south Sebastopol are so polluted by industrial products and/or chemical agriculture that people cannot safely drink from them. When water goes bad, life can go bad, for water is the source of all life. Polluted water can cause cancer and numerous other problems.

Unsafe levels of the chemicals PCE and TCE have been discovered in some wells–probably from dry cleaning and machine shops. TCE, according to material circulated at the meeting, “may cause nervous system effects, liver and lung damage, abnormal heartbeat, coma, and possibly death.” Not the kind of thing one wants to drink or even breathe.

Nitrates and nitrites have also been discovered, probably coming from agriculture. A California Department of Health Services flyer reveals that nitrates and nitrites come from “animal waste run-off from dairies and feedlots, excessive use of fertilizers, or seepage of human sewage from private septic systems.”

Ten experts sitting at a long table admitted that they did not yet know much about how the wells were polluted. Officials advised residents in the contaminated sites to use bottled water for drinking, brushing teeth, and cooking. Even inhaled vapors can be harmful; opening windows for ventilation when showering or doing dishes was recommended.

In recent years, contaminated sites have been discovered throughout the county. A water specialist at St. Joseph Health System, Sharon Marchetti, is currently working on eight contaminated local sites.

“We have already lost two city wells to PCE and TCE,” Sebastopol City Councilmember Larry Robinson noted. “Our city well in that neighborhood has so far tested free of contaminants, but we are concerned and monitoring the water carefully.”

Many residents at the meeting were upset. Some complained that the county knew about the problem for at least three years but did not inform the neighborhood. Officials responded that funds have not been available for investigating and communicating. The tax-paying audience did not appreciate this response.

“I’m getting the hell out of here,” muttered an old man sitting behind me. “I’ve been here over 40 years. Now they tell us our water is bad. I’m out of here.” The nervous energy in the room felt that it might fuel a water uprising.

Later in June, I attended a Blue Circle gathering. It drew together government officials, professionals, and water activists to network. County Supervisor Mike Reilly implored, “We need to keep the water bags off the Gualala River.” He was referring to the scheme of Ric Davidge, once Alaska’s top water official, to export North Coast water. He wants to put it in giant sacks and tug it down the Pacific Ocean to sell in San Diego.

The Davidge proposal exemplifies the growing trend of multinational corporations seeking to buy water in one region and sell it elsewhere. Water, like air, has traditionally been understood to be part of the public trust, what some call “blue gold.” Now enterprising corporations want to commodify it in order to profit from its sale.

Geologist Jane Nielson spoke about water to the June meeting of the Blucher Creek Watershed Council, located south and west of Sebastopol. Nielson volunteers her scientific skills to the watershed group. Such citizens groups may be part of the solution to our mounting water problems. They gather various stakeholders in a water drainage area to collaborate on problem solving. There are around 300 watershed councils in California.

Nielson reported various areas in the North Coast where people are having a variety of water problems. Penngrove citizens, for example, have taken the city of Rohnert Park to court because it wants to expand to the east. The aquifer that serves Rohnert Park is diminishing, and the additional people will consume the water now used by people in Penngrove.

The rampant growth of water-consuming vineyards also presents problems. Vineyards tend to put in deep industrial wells, which can draw down the water table. Nonnative grape plants join another alien species, eucalyptus trees, to consume a lot of water, thus depriving native plants and streams.

Brock Dolman, a wildlife biologist with the influential Occidental Arts and Ecology Center, has been working with others to write a water resources element into the Sonoma County general plan. It is currently being revised and would set the policies that guide our future. Our new general plan may be the first in the state to have a water element.

“We must learn to think like a watershed and understand how human development impacts the water cycle,” Dolman commented to me.

“Considering the current degraded state of Sonoma County’s water resources, we must act now to ensure high quality and optimum quantities of pure water for future generations of all species.”

From the July 18-24, 2002 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.

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