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Perc Up Your Ears

Last Tuesday the following item appeared on the Mendocino supervisors consent calendar:

“Item 8a) Authorize staff to Coordinate Anderson Valley Community Services District’s Access to Perform Preliminary Tests at County-Owned Fairgrounds in Boonville for Purpose of Determining Wastewater Alternative Project Location Feasibility.”

Translation: Perform a “perc,” or percolation test on the back lot at the Fairgrounds to see if the soil is suitable as an “injection site” for treated wastewater.

The Boonville Fair Board, preferring to call the treated wastewater “sewage,” had objected to the testing at two previous Fair Board meetings, so the AV CSD Board decided to ask the Fairgrounds’ “landlord,” the County of Mendocino, to authorize the perc testing to determine if the Fairgrounds back lot could be an alternative site for the District’s proposed wastewater treatment facility.

Supervisor Glenn McGourty pulled the item for discussion apparently because Anderson Valley vintner Deborah Cahn had filed a written objection to the item, and her lawyer had piled on with a Brown Act Complaint that the item had not been adequately noticed and was misnumbered in the Board’s agenda. 

What had at first appeared to be a minor, innocuous-seeming item then blossomed into a full discussion by the Supervisors of the Boonville drinking water and wastewater treatment projects.

Supervisor Williams offered some background: “Anderson Valley was skipped over back when the state implemented wastewater and water systems.” There are state funds available, Williams said, thanks to the voters and “we don't want to miss this opportunity to bring modern amenities to Boonville.” 

Williams said that there has been verified contamination in Boonville water since 1963. The leach fields at various residences and businesses in Boonville that would be no longer necessary under this plan “could be repurposed for accessory dwelling units.” “We desperately need housing stock,” said Williams. “The request today is not to approve the CSD using the site, simply to allow the CSD to perform soil samples to see if it would even be an appropriate site. Talking to staff, it's become clear to me that this project is appropriately zoned for public service projects. If we were to identify another parcel in the neighborhood, rangeland or ag, the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) would require us to describe why it's appropriate to use ag land for this type of wastewater facility. If the board were to approve this at a future date, the actual site I understand would be a 50 x 100 foot self-contained vessel. We are not talking about a wastewater pond. You might think wastewater or sewer and a pond and smell and the land is unusable. That does not seem to be the case here.”

McGourty: “We've got an e-mail from Deborah Cahn saying the Fair Board wanted to pass on having this as a site. I understand this is merely testing which is different. It's not approval of the actual project. I just wanted to be sure we had a discussion so that in the event -- there probably should be more community discourse on this. I think testing makes sense. What Supervisor Williams described does not sound onerous. But I think the community should have a voice and I feel a little uncomfortable moving things forward without being sure that the people involved are okay with it.”

Williams: “There have been community meetings by the CSD. It's their project, not a county project. There will be a democratic process that will actually be up for the parcels in the affected region to vote and that gives me some relief even if the county is willing to entertain the concept and find that it's an appropriate location and it will be up to the people of Boonville to decide whether or not they want this installed.”

McGourty: “I think that answers all the questions I have. We don't need to spend any more time on it. As long as people know what is happening I think we are okay. Ms. Cahn did say that she sees a need for the sewer system, she's not disagreeing with the concept. She's just concerned about having it on the grounds of the Fairgrounds. What you describe, Supervisor Williams, is so small that it could get lost in that property pretty easily. It sounds like people wouldn't even be aware of it. I just want to be sure that we are transparent as we go forward with this.”

Wiliams: “No matter where it's placed, there will be some controversy. It may be that the soil samples show that this is not even an appropriate location, and then we are done with the discussion. Or it could show the soil is perfect. We need to at least allow the CSD to do the soil testing, given that we've gone this far into the discussion. But we can have them [the CSD reps] comment to make sure I have the facts correct.”

AV CSD Board Chair Valerie Hanelt then described the project which uses an “MBR” (“Membrane Bio-Reactor”) allowing the facility to be “shoehorned” into small towns. Hanelt said the system would treat the effluent to “tertiary” levels. This “clean water” is then injected back into the ground. “Solids would be trucked away,” said Hanelt. “It’s being used in several other places in Northern California. There's no odor associated with these. We looked at two other similar plants, one at Francis Ford Coppola and another at Silver Oaks winery. When you go up to these facilities you realize there is absolutely no odor. The state will pay 100% of the infrastructure and all laterals going to nonprofits and residential homes, for both drinking water and waste systems. Part of the problem we have is that we are proposing technology people are not aware of and they have the impression that it's an old 1980s style sewer pond. That's far from the truth. This is just one of the facilities we are looking at so we have data for the environmental process. We will answer the questions and concerns that the letter writers have as part of that process.”

Hanelt said the CSD has looked at eight or nine sites. “One of the problems in Boonville is that the soil has a high water table level and ground can be swampy in places.”

Supervisor McGourty: “The more I hear about this the better it sounds. Situating it in the right place will be the key. This is a very advanced water treatment system. It's not an above grade or open-air treatment system. I suspect this will be environmentally friendly and pretty workable. The Community Services District just needs to get a little bit ahead of this with the community so they know what's going on.”

Hanelt added that the state will finance both projects to the tune of about $35 million which includes fire prevention capacity for water hydrants in Boonville.

Supervisor McGourty, formerly the County’s Farm Advisor wine expert added, “A lot of wineries have small scale treatment plants to deal with their effluent. There are a lot of different approaches and I'd be happy to look at this one.”

The District’s Consulting Engineer Dave Coleman clarified: “The 50 x 100 foot footprint cited earlier is the projected size of the building that would house the wastewater treatment plant. There would also be a disposal field underground that would be a couple of acres in size and another couple acres set aside for future replacement area. Those disposal fields would not have any above-ground facilities. Above ground activities such as parking and camping that the fairgrounds is using the property for currently could continue on top of those disposal fields.”

Ms. Cahn, whose (daughter’s) winery abuts the Fairgrounds site where the plant would be located, reminded the Supervisors that “the Fair Board and the local community have rejected this as a potential site twice. That does not lend itself to acceptance by the community in the long run.”

Ms. Cahn is correct that the Fair Board is opposed to the testing and the project. But “the local community,” whatever she may mean by that, has not been heard from.

The Fairgrounds representatives then went on at length about the wonderful benefits the Fairgrounds provides to the community, including the Fair itself and other events. They prefer “a site farther away from downtown,” and insist that using Fairgrounds for a “sewage” site is “unprecedented and would set an unfortunate precedent for the whole state fair system.”

Fair manager James Brown thought the project would present “health issues” which would undermine the Fair's ability to attract visitors and provide the services they provide.

Fair Board member Morgan Baynham noted that “sewage” is not processed by wineries, adding that, “Nobody knows what they're talking about. Nobody has visited a like for like system that treats over 500 people with one of these systems. I don't know if the figures the Fair board got from the CSD were accurate.”

CSD Manager Joy Andrews: “Since the fair would be incorporated in this system, that would benefit them directly and at no cost. The system cannot be designed for future expansion by state requirements. The area of the injection field could continue to be used as is as the engineer said for camping and parking. We have done lots of community outreach. This is just a request for a soil test to move the project forward. There have been many meetings and outreach and door-to-door contacts and expert panels and postcards and monthly meetings.”

County Counsel Christian Curtis told the Supervisors that the County is the Fairgrounds landlord and the landholder. “The Fair board is allowed to use the land for certain Fair purposes or certain types of activities like camping under certain terms and for specific events.”

Supervisor Dan Gjerde: “The project is desperately needed. Boonville is one of the most significant unincorporated communities in the county. It's too big to just pass away.”

McGourty: “This needs to keep moving. Taking soil samples doesn't mean the project will be located there. All options should be on the table. I did some quick calculations assuming the effluent is about 40 gallons per day [per person] which is a little on the high side times 500 people times 365 days a year uses for about 22 acre feet of water which is about the amount used to for 20 acres of pasture in a typical year. It's not a huge amount of water as opposed to agriculture. The amount of tertiary treated water would be nominal and might actually be a resource that could be used by agriculture in that area for pasture.”

Interim County Planning Director Nash Gonzalez: “Focusing on core downtown is important because that’s exactly how you keep the project from growing much. Putting the project in ag or rangeland means there would be much more opportunity for expansion.”

Williams: “We owe it to local government to allow them to consider this site.”

Supervisor Maureen Mulheren: “I’ve been following this project for several years. I suggest that everybody get a subscription to the Anderson Valley Advertiser where they’ve had an ongoing conversation. It shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone. We all know the worth and importance of the Fairgrounds and the wonderful things they provide. Nobody discounts that. This is just to see if it should move forward.”

The Board then voted unanimously to proceed with the perc test at the Fairgrounds. So, as CSD Board member Larry Mailliard famously said way back in August of 2019 at a joint meeting of the Fair Board and the CSD Board, paraphrasing the famous statement from the OJ trial, “If it won’t perc, it won’t work.”

Field Notes From Francis Coppola’s Winery Sanitary Treatment Plant

by Yoriko Kishimoto

A small sanitary treatment plant is being proposed for Boonville and there have been many meetings and much time and money spent on scoping out how large it needs to be, how much it will cost, who will pay for it, and most challengingly, where to site it. Boonville is evidently one of the last small downtowns of California without a community sanitary plan. The good news is that state grants will pay for just about 100% of the installation costs. There are usually requirements for local matching funds, but not for Boonville due to the economic needs here. 

The hardest part is finding a site, largely due to fears of odors and impacts. This is a natural fear, especially for people who might have memories of older sanitary plants.

I was curious myself and last November made a field trip with my husband to the Frances Coppola Winery in Geyserville with an introduction from Val Hanelt. The plant operator gave us a very enthusiastic short tour. The plant handles sanitary (human) wastes from their office and field staff and their restaurant and tasting room. The restaurant was closed due to COVID-19, but their other operations were on-going so the sanitary plant was still running all the time.

First impression was “no smells” although he walked us on top of one of the tanks where water was flowing, inside the control rooms and next to the storage tanks. We didn’t have to raise our voices either. 

Their system is designed to treat and dispose of up to 20,000 gallons per day (gpd) of wastewater flows via a Membrane Bioreactor (MBR) package wastewater treatment plant and effluent drip irrigation disposal system. In comparison, Anderson Valley Community Service District (CSD) is proposing a plant sized for 60,000 or up to 90,000 gallons/day, I believe, so it was quite a bit smaller in scale.

According to the files at the water board, the MBR treatment plant includes an anoxic treatment zone for denitrification, an aeration zone for aerobic digestion of BOD5 (Biological Oxygen Demand) and a membrane micro filtration zone for Total Suspended Solids (TSS) removal.

Following MBR treatment, the wastewater is pumped to an effluent storage tank where it is dosed with a sodium hypochlorite solution for chlorine disinfection. The 200,000 gallon effluent storage tank will allow for approximately 10 days of storage capacity at peak summer time wastewater flow volumes and 28.6 days at average winter flow volumes.

Disposal takes place via surface drip irrigation on 2.48 acres of existing vineyard located west of the facility and 3.31 acres of undeveloped native oak habitat north of the facility. The vineyard disposal area will be preferentially irrigated throughout the year to minimize disposal on the undeveloped parcel. Both disposal areas will be fenced off from public access and signs identifying the use of recycled water will be posted along the fencing.

Bottom line: there’s nothing like seeing it in person. The Coppola plant was operating at a low rate due to the restaurant closure, but I think it was still representative. I hope other people have a chance to visit. The plant is not open for public tours, but I believe Joy Andrews of the Community Service District will organize tours as COVID safety allows. Email water.av.csd@gmail to get on their notifications list for meetings. 

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