Feb 25, 2008

Healdsburg, Calif., Wastewater Discharge Ruling May Have Statewide Impact

City loses appeal; must stop discharging year-round into quarry pit near river

Healdsburg, Calif., must stop discharging wastewater year-round into an old quarry pit next to the Russian River following a loss in the U.S. Supreme Court, the Press Democrat reported.

"It was a victory for the environment," said Charles Tebbutt of Eugene, Ore., an attorney for Northern California River Watch, the group that brought suit against Healdsburg in 2001.

On Feb. 19, the Supreme Court declined to review decisions by federal courts in San Francisco that said Healdsburg's discharges into Basalt Pond are subject to the Clean Water Act, the paper reported.

"From a legal perspective, it is very important; from an environmental perspective, it is very important," Tebbutt said.

The decision establishes that because of their proximity to the Russian River, the Healdsburg quarry pits are subject to the federal Clean Water Act, according to the newspaper.

"That ruling, although specific for Healdsburg, is precedent-setting," said Mike Kirn, the city's public works director, adding that it could become the basis for decisions about wastewater storage by regional water quality control boards across the state, the paper reported.

"It would not surprise me if that becomes the barometer for the other regional boards to prepare waste discharge requirements and conditions," Kirn said.

David Leland, the chief of watershed protection for the North Coast Water Quality Control Board, a state agency with regulatory oversight authority of wastewater discharges, said the ruling means the city has to comply with regulations of the Clean Water Act, which require a higher standard of treatment to discharge into the Basalt Pond and will eliminate discharges in the summer.

River Watch argued that the wastewater eventually seeped into the river, requiring that the city get a permit to comply with the Clean Water Act, the paper reported.

The city asserted it needed to meet state regulations, rather than those of the Clean Water Act, but federal courts in San Francisco ruled in 2006 and in 2007 against the city.

The city appealed the 2007 ruling to the Supreme Court, which said it would not hear the case, the paper reported.

"It interprets a piece of the law that has been under challenge," Leland said. "What are the waters of the United States? Is the Basalt Pond, which Healdsburg was arguing was separate from the river, part of the Russian River? The court ruled it was functionally part of the river."

Healdsburg is finishing a $32 million treatment plant, which will be operating by May 1, and has received permits from the water board, the paper reported.

To eliminate summer discharges into the pond, the city is planning to spend $10 million to $14 million to irrigate city parks, playgrounds and the city golf course, Kirn told the paper.

Along with the possibility of sewage rate hikes, Kirn said Healdsburg also may be liable for about $900,000 in court costs and River Watch attorney fees.