County makes a deal with river watchdog firm

By DAWN PILLSBURY / Healdsburg Tribune / April 2003

In exchange for not getting sued, the county has agreed to open the books on its wastewater problems.

River Watch, an environmental watchdog organization, started the paperwork to sue the Sonoma County Water Agency over violations at seven of its sewage treatment plants.

“They’ve agreed to a tolling agreement,” said River Watch lawyer Jack Silver. “That means we agree not to sue for four months, giving us time to meet. In exchange, they’ll sit down with us and be fully cooperative with documents, personnel, site inspections and meeting with our group of environmentalists to discuss the issues and how we can work together as a community better.”

Silver’s letter of complaint cited North Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board records that the agency has had 301 violations at the River sewage treatment plant since 1998, 384 at the Occidental plant, 175 at Forestville, 140 at Sea Ranch, 290 at Gualala, 60 at the Airport plant and 624 at the Sonoma Valley plant. Those violations range from discharging raw sewage to failures to notify neighbors of other violations.

“The small, rural water districts are working hard to improve the facilities and enhance water quality,” said Fourth District Supervisor Paul Kelley.
“This kind of lawsuits have a damaging effect on their financial ability to do what the lawsuits are asking them to do.”

Kelley said the lawsuit is a shakedown operation similar to River Watch’s suit’s against other Northern California cities such as Willits and Fortuna. “Often Silver and Silver file notice and ask for money to keep them from suing,” said Kelley. “It seems they’re more interested in the money than in improving sanitation districts and water quality.”

Silver disagrees. “I’m not only concerned about what the Water Agency is doing with the sewage plants,” said Silver. “I’m concerned about what it’s doing with all our resources, especially water resources.”
He said the amount of development permitted by the Board of Supervisors – who also serve as the board of directors of the Water Agency – is unreasonable.

Silver said he had in the past written to ask the Water Agency to allow his group to visit plants, talk with employees and other things he’s asking for and was met with silence. He said it doesn’t make sense for the supervisors to withhold information.

“We need to open a dialogue, to create the possibility of reform,” he said, saying that the board’s twin roles create problems and that making the Water Agency an independent agency and allowing sewer districts to be run by their communities would be possible solutions.

“None of these things have simple fixes,” he said. “But litigation is an immense waste of time and money, especially when we can exchange information about it.”