River Redux

Letters highlight current cleanup efforts, community concerns

It seems the Bohemian’s coverage of the excessive levels of bacteria in the Petaluma River Watershed made some waves.

Over the past few weeks, river recreationists have thanked us for highlighting the issue and local officials have sought to clarify certain points highlighted in our initial reporting.

Still other river users asked us to weigh in on whether it is safe to swim in or eat fish from the Petaluma River Watershed.

This article will cover all of those issues below. First, here is a brief recap of the situation.

In order to determine whether fecal matter has seeped into the water, scientists test water for Fecal Indicator Bacteria (FIB). Though the FIB themselves are not dangerous, scientists use these strains of bacteria to test the level of fecal contamination in a water body, which can potentially be dangerous.

That fecal matter can come from a range of warm-blooded creatures, including humans, cows, horses and dogs. Some level of these bacteria is natural, but state and federal agencies have identified unsafe levels.

The main stem of the Petaluma River was first listed as “impaired” by excessive levels of fecal indicator bacteria in 1975.

Over the past several years, scientists from the San Francisco Bay Regional Water Quality Control Board, one of nine regional boards around the state tasked with overseeing water quality, have tested for indicator bacteria in the Petaluma River Watershed.

The conclusion? In short, the levels exceed allowed amounts of indicator bacteria throughout the Petaluma River Watershed.

On Wednesday, Nov. 13, the regional board unanimously approved a plan, known as the Petaluma River Bacteria Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL). The board intends the TMDL to define the level of bacteria—in this case, levels of FIB—and provide a roadmap for solving the problem.

Weighing In

In separate letters to the Bohemian, the City of Petaluma and Friends of the Petaluma River expressed concern that our previous coverage highlighted the city’s sewer treatment plant as a possible source of fecal matter.

The city staffers clarified that the sewage treatment plant itself is not a possible source of contamination, since they treat the sewage there to “exceptionally high standards.”

My original article [‘Waste Deep,’ Nov. 6] included references to possible contamination coming from the city’s sewage facility, rather than the sewer collection system—the pipes that carry the raw sewage to the treatment facility.

As the water board’s report notes, “Wastewater discharges from the [City of Petaluma’s] Ellis Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant are not likely to contribute to FIB impairment of the river because they are disinfected to levels well below the applicable bacterial water quality objectives.”

The Bohemian regrets the error in terminology.

Still, as city staffers acknowledge in their letter, some of the laterals and mains that make up the city’s sewer collection system do sometimes overflow, mostly due to aging infrastructure coping with heavy storms.

The city staffers went on to highlight ongoing efforts to clean up the river and the surrounding watershed.

Those efforts include infrastructure upgrade projects, like “a major sewer replacement project in the City’s older downtown area”; the city’s Sewer Lateral Replacement Grant Program, which offers “financial assistance to property owners for the replacement of their private sewer laterals”; and public education campaigns aimed at curbing pollution from pet waste and stormwater runoff.

In a separate letter, Andy Rodgers, director of the nonprofit Friends of the Petaluma River, encouraged readers to take a broader view of the sources of bacteria, rather than focus on treatment facilities, as I did erroneously.

“Instead of looking at [public sewage treatment] facilities, we need to focus on the non-point sources: homeless encampments, domestic and agricultural animals, failing septic tanks and leach fields, urban runoff and especially elevating the awareness of our citizens and visitors to behave responsibly,” Rodgers wrote.

TMDL Concerns

And that brings us to one criticism of the regional water board’s current plan.

In a letter to the board in early September, staff members from San Francisco Baykeeper, an environmental nonprofit, contended that the board’s proposed plan to clean up the river, known as a TMDL, does not meet the definition laid out in federal regulations.

In short, Baykeeper argues that, although the SF Bay Regional Water Quality Control Board calls its plan a TMDL, the current plan does not meet the requirements needed to use that name.

For instance, Ben Eichenberg, a staff attorney at San Francisco Baykeeper, tells the Bohemian that the current plan does not properly differentiate between the multiple possible sources of fecal matter.

Without that information, it makes it hard to hold any potential sources of bacteria accountable.

“They’re just guessing about what’s causing the pollution,” Eichenberg says. “Based on those guesses they’ve thrown together some ideas to randomly try to fix the pollution without any plan to measure how well the ideas are working.”

Due to that weakness and others in the TMDL, it could “take decades longer to solve the problem,” Eichenberg says.

In their response to Baykeeper’s concerns, Regional Water Board staff repeatedly wrote that they “disagree” with the nonprofit’s interpretations of the requirements of a TMDL.

“This TMDL includes requirements for all sources of bacteria throughout the watershed,” staff wrote in part.

Still, although the regional water board approved the TMDL unanimously on Wednesday, Nov. 13, the current plan isn’t necessarily a done deal.

Eichenberg says the California State Water Resources Control Board and then the Environmental Protection Agency will both review the TMDL before it officially goes into effect. Either agency could potentially make changes.

Community Concerns

Several readers have asked whether or not it is safe to swim in or eat the fish from the waters of the Petaluma River Watershed. This reporter asked the Sonoma County’s Health Officer, Dr. Celeste Philips, to weigh in. Her answers, edited for length, are below:

Is it safe to swim in the river?

“Swimming is not recommended when e.coli levels surpass the [state] exceedance threshold. We advise people to follow these instructions when coming into contact with water in the river,” Dr. Philips says.

Dr. Philips’ other advisories include: Do not swallow water; Do not drink river water or use it for cooking; Adults and children should wash hands/shower and towel dry after swimming; Rinse off pets after they come into contact with the water and do not swim when sick.

Is it safe to eat fish from the river?

Dr. Philips notes that the California Office of Environmental Health Assessment does not list the Petaluma River on its California Fish Advisory Map, which offers “current information regarding fish consumption advisories for freshwater bodies throughout the State.”

“That said, we advise that for fish caught in the Petaluma River that people throw away the guts and clean fillets with tap water or bottled water before cooking,” Dr. Philips adds.

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