Point Reyes wastewater feasibility study handed off

10/09/2019

The last of three meetings where Point Reyes Station residents discussed water-related issues ended with a punt. The county will not pursue funding for a wastewater feasibility study in favor of letting working groups convened by Supervisor Dennis Rodoni explore options for wastewater management and visitor bathrooms—two issues that rose to the top during the water meetings this year.

The series was funded by a state grant for water-resource planning and decision-making in rural communities. As part of the effort, the county created a survey after the first meeting to gauge feelings on various water-related issues. While some raised concerns around water supply and flooding, survey results showed the top-priority projects were a feasibility study for a community wastewater system and additional restrooms for visitors. 

The restroom issue appears to have a solution: on Monday, a working group hosted by Supervisor Dennis Rodoni met to discuss building a new facility on a county-owned property down the street from the existing restrooms. The debate over whether the county should pursue funding for a feasibility study has been the biggest point of contention. 

Residents expressed concern at last week’s meeting and at a Point Reyes Station Village Association meeting on Sept. 8 that a wastewater system would solve a problem that doesn’t exist. County staff revealed  last week  that they have recorded 21 septic repairs in the past four years in Point Reyes Station, though there may be unknown failures. “Just because you may not be having a problem with performance that you’re aware of, [your system] may be leaking into the groundwater,” said Lorene Jackson, the project manager for the meeting series.

She laid out what a feasibility study entails: at no cost or commitment from the town, a consultant would describe existing conditions by reviewing county septic records, doing voluntary septic inspections and taking water samples. The study would identify alternatives—such as a wastewater management district, alternative sustainable technologies, and no project—and select a preferred one. Then the community could decide whether to move forward with an environmental review of a specific project. 

Ms. Jackson invited Marshall resident George Clyde to speak about the wastewater system in his community, where septic failures were linked to bacterial contamination in Tomales Bay. The project, which serves about 50 properties along Highway 1, was completed in 2016 at a cost of $3.2 million. Each homeowner paid $20,000 to connect to the new system.

“[A feasibility study] was kind of a no-brainer for us,” Mr. Clyde said. “Because it wasn’t going to cost us anything, it wasn’t going to commit us to anything, and we were going to learn a lot about, through the study itself, what the situation was with our homes and the systems.” 

But residents were quick to point out the differences between Marshall and Point Reyes Station.

“That’s an ideal, low-cost piece of topography,” said Bob Johnston, who has been skeptical of a wastewater system because of its potential to bring more development. Adding sewers to a place with hills would cost more because the system would require many pumps, he said.

“I know more information is good, but it’s not grabbing me as the thing to do,” added Laura Arndt, the village association’s treasurer.

“My sense is that we are…going to punt the whole feasibility study to this wastewater group and they’re going to discuss it more,” Ms. Jackson responded. “And if at some point they feel like…they want to proceed with a feasibility study, then we can revisit it at that time.”

A wastewater working group that is part of a larger group convened by Supervisor Rodoni early this year will attempt to gather more information about the town’s wastewater situation through grants for water testing in the creek and the bay, Supervisor Rodoni said. A sewer system is not the only option, he added: Small systems using high technologies or a septic system oversight district also are possible.

A sticking point at the water meetings was that different areas of town have different needs and a wastewater system could not serve all of them. Downtown sees more visitors but has an underground gravel layer that percolates effluent effectively, while the mesa has a clay layer, making more modern systems necessary. A mixture of people on the working group ensures that all interests are represented, Supervisor Rodoni said.

He convened a group of about 10 community stakeholders representing various town interests following the passage of Measure W, which raised taxes on overnight rentals in West Marin so the county could enhance emergency services and long-term housing. The measure does not fully address the impacts of tourism, he said, so the group identified about 30 other issues facing the town as a result of the influx of visitors.

That list was narrowed down to four issues, and the working group divided into subgroups to address each: solid waste, community services, wastewater and bathrooms.

The solid waste group will look at starting a “pack it out” campaign, among other efforts around garbage disposal, while the community services group will explore recreational opportunities, such as a community kitchen or swimming pool. 

The bathroom group was the first to meet, discussing building more public restrooms on an undeveloped, county-owned property on the corner  of Mesa and Giacomini Roads, just a couple hundred feet from the existing bathrooms. Those bathrooms were not built to handle the current volume of visitors, so the county spends $240,160 annually to pump out the portable toilets adjacent to the stalls. 

Supervisor Rodoni said that the county is open to using alternative technologies, such as composting, and including an educational component. 

The Trust for Public Land will be brought on to help facilitate the discussion about what the bathrooms might look like. “I wanted to make sure that this process included someone who was skilled with planning and skilled with facilitation,” Supervisor Rodoni said. The trust currently owns the San Geronimo Golf Course property and last worked with the county to re-open Rocky Graham Park in Marin City.

A new bathroom facility would aim to meet current demand with 12 to 14 stalls, and parking and other amenities could be folded into the 1.78-acre property.

Meanwhile, the county parks department is looking into ways to improve septic capacity at the existing facility, and is moving forward with adding a ramp.