The Community Services District board hosted a community discussion of the prospects for a local water and sewer system last Wednesday night at the Fairgrounds dining hall in downtown Boonville.
CSD Board Chair Valerie Hanelt assembled a panel of experts including Mendo's Environmental Health Director Dave Jensen, Ted Walker, a retired Sonoma County environmental health specialist and now a consultant, Jack Locey and Dave Long, water and sewer system consulting civil engineers from Sonoma County, and Charles Reed, a senior staffer with the Regional Water Quality Control Board in Santa Rosa.
About 40 people showed up for the discussion although several left before it was over having been worn out by a few filibusterers, both on the panel and in the audience.
Engineer Jack Locey pointed out that community water and sewer systems can become necessary in older communities where wells start to fail, where water quality declines, where fire safety is important and water availability becomes sketchy. He said it was more cost-effective in many cases than dealing with water or septic problems on a lot by lot basis.
Dave Jensen said there are many small lots in downtown Boonville that would probably not be allowed by today's permitting rules because they don't have sufficient space for septic systems. These small parcels present a replacement challenge and limit the ability to put second housing units on them. In addition, businesses with commercial kitchens or that require extra water are limited by the present private water setup. Community water and sewer systems could provide more efficient options for the future. In addition, Jensen pointed out, many of Boonville's wells are old and may not have the more up-to-date steel casings to prevent the intrusion of contaminants.
A community water system would have to find a source of water and combined with some kind of treatment and state-mandated rules and oversight. A typical system would include the water source, treatment facilities and processing, storage tanks, pressure or gravity feed, distribution, and meters. The other side of the meter would be the responsibility of the property owner.
Ted Walker pointed out that newer technology decentralized septic systems feeding a centralized community leach field would be an improvement over the present lot by lot septic systems and would reduce contamination into the water table. The simplest system would also be the least cost alternative. Options in addition to that basic system would include some partial wastewater treatment to convert the wastewater into recycled water which could be used or sold for irrigation.
To initiate the process a "service area" would have to be defined. The community would have to decide what type of system it wanted, and what the boundaries would be. They would then look for planning grants and loans to pay for the planning and design of a water or sewer district (both of which could be included in the Community Services District if the so-called "latent powers" were activated).
In other areas on the Northcoast, boards of supervisors have contributed what are called "district formation loans," and grants can be applied for from the state of California and the Department of Agriculture if certain (essentially poverty level) criteria are met. A key factor in grant approval is community support because otherwise, “There are too many ways for opponents to obstruct a project,” said one of the engineers.
Any proposed project would also have to be accompanied by an environmental impact report addressing the many aspects of potential impact. A decision would also have to be made about whether to pursue just a water system or a combination water-sewer district (or some kind of phase-in with water first).
Jensen stressed that a septic system is not just a disposal system. Even the simplest private septic system involves plumbing, a tank, and a leach field where the effluent percolates and is processed by ground bacteria. Over time the leach field can gum up and lose its processing capability. In those cases new septic systems can cost upwards of $30,000 in today's highly regulated environment.
Local property owner Karen Ottoboni pointed out that the very small parcels on the Haehl Street “U” in downtown Boonville are a particular problem for water and sewer and would probably be the most likely to benefit from a new system.
Individuals would be allowed to use their existing wells for gardening and the like, but they would not be allowed to "cross contaminate" into a community system. If people chose not to hook up to the system during the initial phase, they would be subject to a higher fee at a later time to cover their share of the development and construction cost.
Somewhere near the completion point of the planning process (presumably funded by the aforementioned planning grant), a specific proposal would have to be put to a vote of landowners in the “service area” who would vote based upon the number of service units they would have under the proposed design.
Construction cost issues were not entirely clear, although again apparently at least some of the construction costs could be covered by grants and loans or bonds with a provision for loan repayment from whatever water or sewer district is eventually set up.
Several people noted that housing is a major problem which limits the Valley’s ability to bring people in for a range of jobs and that a water or sewer system could make new housing more affordable. However, Mr. Jensen said that he was not convinced that “low-cost housing” isn't mostly a myth. “It's tough” to build anything that’s really “affordable,” he said, land being as pricy as it is in the area and construction costs and requirements increasing by the year.
Some have speculated that the well at the Boonville fairgrounds might be a decent existing source of water, but no one specifically brought that option up Wednesday night.
A skeptic in the audience said that it was not at all clear how bad the problem is — no serious assessments have been made about how many houses actually have failing wells, contaminated water systems, inadequate water, failing septic systems and leach fields, etc. Without some kind of quantitative assessment of the problem, how can the idea be sold to the general public or the granting agencies?
Ms. Hanelt said that she hoped people would come forward to participate in a pre-planning group to see what steps can be taken in the short-term in the direction of a applying for a planning grant for a water, sewer or combination system for downtown Boonville. If you are interested, please contact CSD General Manager Joy Andrews at 895-2075 or email@example.com.