U.S. Supreme Court Ends Healdsburg’s Appeals


Tuesday, the Supreme Court of the United States decided to allow a lower court decision, involving Healdsburg’s disposal of secondarily treated sewage into an unlined pond adjacent to the Russian River, to stand without comment. The request for review brought by the City of Healdsburg was denied, and the original ruling handed down by the District court several years ago was allowed to stand essentially unchanged.

The United States Supreme Court issued it’s decision in Northern California River Watch vs. the City of Healdsburg. A petition for writ of Certiorari brought by the City of Healdsburg was denied without comment. The lower court ruling set out the principle that protection of water bodies adjacent to waters of the United States is necessary to the protection of the biological integrity of U.S. waters.

This is important news if you like clean water. The Clean Water Act was passed in 1972 to eliminate pollution to the nations waters. Over 30 years later, the public, agencies, and some politicians are still working to make the law a reality. During the history of the Act, pollution has been regulated but instead of water pollution having been eliminated, permits are issued to allow it. “We have a long way to go,” expressed Jack Silver lead attorney for River Watch the plaintiff in this precedent setting case involving the Russian River. “Today is a very good day for the nations waters,” observed Silver.

River Watch filed suit in Federal District Court seven years ago to protect a pond next to and biologically connected to the Russian River from discharges of unpermitted pollution. The City of Healdsburg utilized a long and expensive appeal process to challenge the claim that secondarily treated sewage needed to be permitted, monitored, and tested when discharged to this pond that is captured by the river in high flows.

The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeal upheld the District court’s view that these ponds are important waters of the United States and individuals or municipalities that wish to discharge pollutants into such ponds must first obtain a permit to do so. A permit allows the North Coast Regional Quality Control Board (NCRWQCB) the opportunity to oversee the effectiveness of the discharge proposal over time and to protect water quality. “I feel strongly that the Court’s decision was appropriate and that it supports the goals of the Clean Water Act in protecting our nations valuable wetlands and waterways,” commented John Short, Senior Water Resources Engineer in the office of the NCRWQCB in Santa Rosa.

During the appeal process, the City of Healdsburg has been building a new sewage treatment plant to better treat sewage. Despite the new capitol improvement plans, the city continued with the expensive legal appeals.

Some industries have come to rely on the nation’s waters as dumping grounds and as a means to dilute pollutants which stay in the environment. They are often represented by anti-environmental organizations like the Pacific Legal Foundation and would like a narrow definition of what constitutes the nation’s waters. The effect of such a narrow view is that important wetlands, tributaries, and isolated lakes and ponds will not be protected.

Clean fresh water is important. It is the mission of River Watch to protect the nation’s waters as the Clean Water Act intended. The Supreme Court’s lack of interest in overturning the Ninth Circuit and the San Francisco District court judge’s ruling may be a sign that there is agreement at the highest levels that we as a nation still place a high value on clean water.