.River Rankles

Petaluma River woes

I’m glad that the North Bay Bohemian is covering the decades-long issues of the Petaluma River (“Waste Deep,” Nov. 6). It was bad when I got to town (in 1987) and started looking at the inadequacies and failures of our old wastewater treatment plant (WWTP). Surcharged sewer pipes overflowed to the river, all of which got worse with our major infiltration and inflows (I&I) problems from leaking collection and transmission pipes.

A Brown and Caldwell engineering report from approximately 1985 projected a $10 million fix to reduce I&I by over half, but that was not done at the time since the council and city manager didn’t want to raise sewer fees to cover the costs. They also illegally diverted several million dollars of sewer connection fees from new housing to subsidize rates, instead of putting the money into WWTP capital funds.

Regional Water Quality Control Boards finally required a new WWTP—and thus was born the secret contracts to fully privatize a new WWTP with Waste Management / Wheelabrator with no bids or public hearings. That option was dumped after we challenged it at the CPUC, and the CPUC unanimously ruled against the city’s efforts to complete that secret and corrupt deal. Ten years later we had a new, advanced WWTP, operated and owned by the city, along with the wetlands polishing ponds and wildlife area adjacent to Shollenberger Park. Discharges of untreated or poorly treated wastewater were almost completely eliminated. Penngrove’s WWTP is still a problem.

A significant issue leading to the remaining concentrated contaminants is that during the dry part of the year, the Petaluma River is actually a slough—so that water never really is flushed out by runoff until it rains. Water is pushed back and forth by tidal action, but the flows necessary to actually send assorted contaminants downstream to the Bay don’t happen. While there is no excuse for contaminants reaching the river from polluted runoff and discharges in the first place, it does exacerbate the problems significantly in the dry season.

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