Smells Like Money

If you’re like most people in the valley, you get to Boonville fairly often. You eat in the cafes, you hit Rossi or the Drive-in, get some groceries at Boont Berry or AV Market. You’ve discovered, happily, that Disco Ranch has nothing to do with disco. Your budget might even include a splurge at the hotel now and then. Almost certainly you know folks who work in Boonville. Plus there are a whole lot of people who actually live there. 

Add them all up, then include all of us who use the town, and you’ve got — a septic problem. A giant quorum of us depend on that town, but it’s jammed with tiny parcels hemmed in by creeks. So now there’s too many people for the available septic tanks and leach fields. 

We could argue all day about whether Boonville should get “developed” or not, but that’s just pie in the sky. Boonville is developed already, to the point that wells are contaminated by septic waste (since 1974), kids are getting third-world diseases, and there’s no room to fix it with anything but a sewer system.

If you know any of the good people on the board of the Community Services District (CSD), you know they don’t like the term “sewer.” That’s because sewers smell like you-know-what. So the CSD board prefers “waste-water treatment system.” 

But you can’t fight human nature, which considers human waste offensive. That’s why, when the CSD board had the very reasonable idea to put a wastewater treatment facility in a back corner of the fairgrounds, on county-owned public land, a neighboring landowner lawyered up and spooked the fairground’s board of directors into voting against it. Unanimously! 

The neighbor did not do that out of spite, or lack of community spirit. Way too much evidence to the contrary to believe that. So why would the neighbor do that? Why would the fair board roll over? Because of what poop smells like. It’s hard to convince people otherwise. But that’s what we need to do now, because in our case, the sewage would not smell like that. 

What it would smell like is money. $14 million, in fact. Coming from the state into our valley, to render our central town – the one we all use – clean and safe again. We would experience the rare and gratifying miracle of our own tax dollars coming home to improve our quality of life. Local property owners would pay nearly nothing to hook up to the new system. Their failing septic systems could be retired forever, eliminating replacement costs. Instead of paying a septic company a purse-shocking lump sum every few years to empty the tank, they would pay a modest monthly service charge.

All that state money buys more than pipes underground. The most important thing it buys is something called a “membrane bio-reactor.” When you see one, it reminds you of a PG&E power substation or a self-storage place. There’s a plain rectangular building with no windows, surrounded by a safety fence. And you smell pretty much what you would smell around a power station or storage facility: nothing.

That’s because the sewage – sorry, wastewater – never goes into an open pond to get “treated” by sunlight. It never sends its pungent vapors abroad on the breeze. No, it stays underground, where a grid of high-tech membranes converts the wastewater into ever more solid waste as the grey water drains clean out of it (just like in your leach field at home, which I am guessing gives off no odor at all). Every few weeks or so, a tanker truck pulls up, sucks out the solids, and drives away. Again, this is just like your septic system at home, when Silva Septic or somebody rolls up the driveway to haul your waste away. 

Now, if this all sounds pretty sensible, then you’re tracking the story. People who live in town need a sewer system. Anyone who lives near Boonville wants that too, because according to geologists the water table is pretty much one big underground lake under that part of the valley, with Boonville in the middle. The county wants us to clean up the fecal contamination in Boonville’s wells, because it’s public record that the county is failing to address the problem. Even the state wants it cleaned up, because sick kids and bad water is a lawsuit waiting to happen.

Most importantly, California voters passed a bond issue in 2014 to fix broken rural water systems in communities just like ours, and millions of dollars are now on the table. If we blow this, we may never get another payday to clean up our mess.

Unfortunately, as the fairground episode shows, the local powers that be are struggling a little bit. I don’t say this in criticism, because I have good friends on both those boards. They are level-headed, community-minded people who are volunteering a lot of time on our behalf. But none of them have ever put in a public sewer system. They have to figure it out – at the same time they’re working on the water system for Boonville. (Fortunately, that seems to be going along much more smoothly, because fresh water smells so sweet.)

Part of figuring out the sewer system is just getting the facts straight, and when I talk to people involved, it appears that we’re not doing that as well as we could. There seem to be some basic misunderstandings about the waste treatment facility, how it would operate, and how the fairgrounds property – Our fairgrounds! Our county fair! – could benefit. 

And let’s not pin this on the fair board. The fairgrounds is not the only place we could put a wastewater treatment facility. The CSD board also runs the airport, and there may be some options there. But the conversation about other options needs help. As long as people are thinking (a) it’s gonna smell bad, and (b) here come the lawyers, who wants to move forward? 

So we need to do what we normally do at times like this: air this whole story out. Talk to your friends, neighbors, business owners and county supervisor about why Boonville matters to you and the community. Talk about why we need Boonville’s wastewater treated and returned to nature in a good way. Talk about the opportunity we have to clean up a central part of our local environment. Go to the CSD website (avcsd.org) and read the various documents posted there. Go to public meetings if you can.

Most practically, we need to debate the location and operating details of the wastewater treatment facility, out loud in public, so that everyone knows what’s at stake: cleaner drinking water downtown, higher property values, healthier children, and the $14 million that could rain down on Boonville, the town we all depend on, to save us from our shit.

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