The Coastal Post - August 2000

The Russian River Water Will Bring
A Witch's Brew Of Pollution To Marin

By Elena Belsky

According to a recent preliminary study, increased use of Russian River water in Marin may introduce significant new health risks to Marin County residents. Increased importation of Russian River water is proposed through construction of a new pipeline by the Marin Municipal Water District (MMWD) under the marginally passed 1992 Measure V.

The study, prepared by Jean Berensmeier, Louis Nuyens, and this author, was presented to the MMWD on July 5th, 2000, and centered on the scope and degree of toxic substances and pollution common in the Russian River watershed, relative to the MMWD's primary local resource, the Mount Tamalpais watershed.

The premise of the ongoing research is that the more polluted the water source, the greater the risk of unhealthy contaminants getting through to drinking water. Unfortunately, water treatment processes are not perfect. Many hazardous substances may be missed, and others may be created as "breakdown" products, and most importantly, water quality testing required by law is too infrequent, does not include many potentially hazardous substances, and does not enable a rapid response to emergency conditions. Even tests that occur frequently, are hampered by days to weeks before results are generated, by which time contaminants may have reached our tap water.

Having spent much time in the Russian River area, I had always assumed that everyone knew the extent of pollution in the Russian River Watershed.

I was astounded at the number of people who have approached me since the initial presentation of the study, who were surprised and shocked by the information.

Here are the basics of what goes into the Russian River Watershed, above the water collection system for Sonoma County Water Agency (we buy the water from them, then pipe it south).

There are five sewage treatment plants that discharge, legally and illegally, above the drinking water collectors in the Russian River. The permitted wastewater discharge from the five cities can add up to 29 million gallons per day during the six month discharge period allowed. Santa Rosa alone, discharges up to 21.3 million gallons per day of treated sewage from 15 identified sources. Not all sites have in-stream post-treatment testing. Illegal discharges by treatment plants and other sources are also common, including toxic spills, hazardous chemicals, partially treated and raw sewage.

Concern about prescription drugs in our groundwater and streams has exploded in the international scientific community and government agencies, following the recent discovery of pharmaceuticals in Europe's tap water. It turns out that 50 to 90 percent of prescription drugs are excreted by the human body and end up in sewage effluent. Many residual pharmaceuticals are not broken down by wastewater treatment processes, nor by drinking water treatment processes. Sewage treatment plants and water agencies are not required to test for prescription drugs. Discovered by chance just two years ago, the findings now seem so obvious that it should have been predicted. By no means is the threat isolated to Europe, but exists anywhere that prescriptions drugs are used by humans and livestock production.

Pharmaceuticals in water was the subject of an international symposium early this year in San Francisco, where the Acting Director of the EPA, James Perndergast stated, "It is certainly an area where we could use a lot more science."

The Russian River Watershed spans parts of Mendocino and Sonoma Counties, in an intensely agricultural area. Herbicide and pesticide use in the watershed is enormous. Thirty-three different pesticides are used by vineyards in Sonoma County, which is the sixth largest user of pesticides in California (1995). For comparison, in 1998: Mendocino County used 1.6 million pounds of chemical agents, Sonoma County used 3.9 million pounds, and Marin County used only 97,000 pounds. The contrast is striking. The Mount Tamalpais watershed is nearly pristine, not suffering from the impacts of pesticide use, urban runoff or industrial waste. Airborne pollutants remain a potential factor, but far less so than where human activities are concentrated.

According to State water codes, water agencies must test for 163 different chemical compounds, but only once per year, and at the time of their choice. There is disagreement as to when to test; time of year, dilution by rain and runoff, and other factors, can affect results. Timing might even be manipulated to skew results.

Raw discharges, treated and partially treated effluent, industrial waste, pesticide runoff, fertilizer (nitrates), and toxic urban runoff plague the Russian River. Santa Rosa's population is over 130,000 people, and now, by law, must participate a State program for testing its urban stormwater runoff discharging into the tributaries of the Russian River. Test results show the problems expected of a large city with industrial components.

Surprisingly, there is no requirement to test for MTBE. It is well understood and documented that growth and land use dramatically affect water quality. It is inevitable that water quality will decline as the explosive growth projected for Sonoma County takes place.

Too much is still not known about health issues related to use of Russian River water. Currently, there is no coordinated water quality monitoring program, by any agency, in the Russian River Watershed. MMWD should not become dependent on a water source that has increased risk of contaminants, and is potentially harmful to its customers.

Readers are encouraged to urge the MMWD (945-1455 or to perform a complete new Environmental Impact Report for the Russian River pipeline project, and to include in it a thorough and complete study of all potential detriments to public health that may be introduced into Marin by importation of foreign water sources.

Special thanks to Jean Berensmeier and Louis Nuyens for their participation in this research project.

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