Healdsburg Wastewater Ruling Could Have Statewide Impact

By BOB NORBERG
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

Following a loss in the U.S. Supreme Court, Healdsburg must stop discharging wastewater year-round into an old quarry pit next to the Russian River.

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“It was a victory for the environment,” said Charles Tebbutt of Eugene, Ore., an attorney for Northern California River Watch, which brought suit against Healdsburg in 2001.

The decision, described by city officials as potentially precedent-setting, establishes that the Healdsburg quarry pits are subject to the federal Clean Water Act because of their proximity to the Russian River.

“From a legal perspective, it is very important; from an environmental perspective, it is very important,” Tebbutt said.

The Supreme Court on Tuesday declined to review decisions by federal courts in San Francisco that said Healdsburg’s discharges into Basalt Pond are subject to the Clean Water Act.

“That ruling, although specific for Healdsburg, is precedent-setting,” said Mike Kirn, the city’s public works director, who added that it could become the basis for decisions about wastewater storage by regional water quality control boards across the state.

“It would not surprise me if that becomes the barometer for the other regional boards to prepare waste discharge requirements and conditions,” he said.

It’s an important decision, said David Leland, the chief of watershed protection for the North Coast Water Quality Control Board, a state agency with regulatory oversight authority of wastewater discharges.

“It interprets a piece of the law that has been under challenge,” he said. “What are the waters of the United States? Is the Basalt Pond, which Healdsburg was arguing was separate from the river, part of the Russian River? The court ruled it was functionally part of the river.”

Leland said the ruling means the city has to comply with regulations of the Clean Water Act, which require a higher standard of treatment to discharge into the Basalt Pond and will eliminate summer discharges.

Healdsburg already was on track to meet water treatment requirements. The city is finishing a $32 million treatment plant and has received permits from the water board. The plant will be operating by May 1, the deadline to increase its level of treatment.

To eliminate summer discharges into the pond, the city is planning to spend $10 million to $14 million to irrigate city parks, playgrounds and the city golf course, Kirn said. That program needs to be in place by the summer of 2010.

That raises the possibility of sewage rate hikes, Kirn said.

“The city and its ratepayers have taken on a tremendous fiscal responsibility to build a new plant, and our average users’ rates are among the highest in the state, $80 a month,” Kirn said. “The rates will probably have to go up another $20 a month . . . We could be over $100 a month for our users.”

Healdsburg also may be liable for about $900,000 in court costs and River Watch attorney fees, Kirn said.

“We are a small community, 12,000 residents. There is not much economy of scale to spread those costs over,” Kirn said.

At issue in the lawsuit was the city’s practice of year-round discharges of treated wastewater into Basalt Pond, a 58-acre former quarry near the Russian River.

River Watch argued the wastewater eventually seeped into the river, requiring that the city get a permit to comply with the Clean Water Act.

The city contended it needed to meet state regulations, rather than those of the Clean Water Act, but federal courts in San Francisco ruled in 2006 and again in 2007 against the city.

The 2007 ruling, by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, was appealed by the city to the Supreme Court, which said it would not hear the case.

You can reach Staff Writer Bob Norberg at 521-5206 or bob.norberg @ pressdemocrat .com