Valley residents disagree on sewer solution

04/02/2015

Opinions among residents in the San Geronimo Valley remain divided over whether a community sewage treatment system should be installed in the Woodacre Flats area that would service 150 developed parcels. There, a high water table prevents effluent from percolating fully through residential leach fields, causing foul odors and fecal seepage during the rainy winter season, and pollution from the sludge combined with sediment runoff threatens to contaminate creeks in a watershed where salmon populations spawn.

The plan has been pushed by homeowners eager to address their septic woes and advance plans that have been in the making for nearly a decade. Others, however, have eyed the project warily, concerned that high costs and a potential allowance for increased development could further harm—more than heal—the community’s septic situation.

Recently, critics of the plan were taken aback by the Marin County Board of Supervisors’ decision to raise funds for an environmental impact report on the project. The seven-person steering committee of the San Geronimo Valley Planning Group—which has worked for years with the county and valley residents to devise a septic solution—has opposed the E.I.R., saying not enough information is known about the project and that the community has not yet reached a consensus on it.

The project would include a two-pond tertiary treatment facility on the San Geronimo Golf Course, to which small sewer lines running underground along Redwood Drive, Central Avenue and Railroad Avenue would pump effluent from individual homes in the Flats. A proposed lift station on Dickson Ranch would pump effluent about a mile to two holding ponds of 11 million gallons on the golf course, crossing San Geronimo Creek along the way. Treated water would be used to irrigate the golf greens.

Depending on how many residents decide to join the system, up-front individual costs for equipment could tally between $45,000 and $56,000. Annual costs have been estimated as high as $1,200 per parcel, assuming that three-quarters of the community participates. 

Aside from environmental concerns, the steering committee worries that the sewer system will encourage more residential development in the valley. County code limits the size of residences with septic systems in conventional zoning districts, like the valley, based on how efficiently each home’s leach field can clean effluent. Should the valley hook into a community sewer system, homes would be reclassified under restrictions that would give property owners leeway to build additional development.

With as many as 150 parcels participating in the sewer system, Woodacre resident and steering committee member Phil Sotter estimated that development in the valley could increase by 750,000 square feet. That’s based on a proposal by a second group, the Woodacre/San Geronimo Valley Flats Wastewater Group, to cap additional development at 500 square feet per parcel. Development of that quantity, Mr. Sotter said, could have major impacts in terms of runoff pollution.

“We certainly don’t think that people would [build 500 square feet] all at once, but it would be in concentrated areas and you would have a lot of impervious surfaces,” he said. “That does cause the creeks to run higher, and that’s not good for the fish. It’s an issue that’s worth discussing.”

The wastewater group’s proposal emulates the sewage system in Marshall, a bayside community that faced similar septic issues caused by effluent runoff into Tomales Bay. Homeowners in Marshall self-imposed a 500-square-foot cap on additional property development as part of the first phase of the sewer system’s construction, completed in 2008.

According to Christin Anderson, a member of the wastewater group, the proposal would benefit homeowners who have properties below 1,400 square feet, the valley’s median development size. “It’s to make things more equitable for people who live in little bungalows that were built in the 40s and 50s, and especially for young people looking to have families,” she said.

The group has also proposed to legalize currently unpermitted residential units on valley properties. In 2004, the Marin County Civil Grand Jury released a report that linked public health risks to faulty septic systems, and in doing so alerted officials to the fact that they were not ensuring that septic systems complied with county code. Soon after, inspections conducted by the county revealed that around two-thirds of septic systems in the San Geronimo Valley operated under marginal or unacceptable standards. 

Seven years later, following an inspection of 150 valley parcels, Questa Engineering Corporation released the county-funded “Woodacre Flats Wastewater Feasibility Study,” which concluded that a community-shared tertiary treatment system with a recycling facility on the golf course would be the best—though also the most complex—among four alternative wastewater plans. On March 3, the Board of Supervisors authorized Environmental Health Services to apply for a $75,000 grant from the State Water Resources Control Board that would contribute to drafting a $290,000 E.I.R. on the proposed sewage-system project. Supervisors have already pledged $127,000 for the report, homeowners have pledged $50,000 and the Marin Municipal Water District $59,000.

On Monday night, the steering committee called on supervisors to postpone plans to raise money for the E.I.R. The committee hosted a presentation on the proposed sewer system, as well as other alternatives, and encouraged the community to sign a petition requesting that the county give valley residents more time to talk with each other.

“We found that too many folks don’t understand the project,” Mr. Sotter said. “We found people asking, ‘How did this project get so far along? How did we get to the point of an E.I.R. and I didn’t know about it?’”

The committee argued that certain questions should be answered before initiating an E.I.R. These questions include whether the sewer system would deplete the region’s aquifer, whether participants in the system would have to shoulder high costs if fewer residents joined than expected and whether the county would commit to assuming liability for system failures—or simply back out when times get tough.

“At this point, we’re wondering if the project has lost its way,” Mr. Sotter said. “We need a plan to help all folks with their septic problems. We want to resolve these issues before starting an E.I.R.”

The steering committee also proposed a new alternative on Monday that would replace existing septic systems with systems using subsurface drip irrigation. That way, the committee said, more valley residents could be served, not just the houses in the Flats.

In a phone interview with the Light, Supervisor Steve Kinsey said an environmental impact report would answer many of the questions posed by the steering committee. An E.I.R., he said, would mark only the next step in what will continue to be a long process.

“An environmental document is an appropriate next step to address many of the concerns that people have,” he said. “With that information at hand, the other aspects of what would make sense could go forward.”

Meanwhile, the wastewater group has insisted that the county move forward with the E.I.R. The 12-person group claims the steering committee’s presentation fudged some of the facts, most notably when describing the current health of creeks in the valley.

“There are an awful lot of distortions here tonight,” Ms. Anderson said. She echoed outcries from several attendees who felt the committee had implied that creeks in the Lagunitas Creek watershed were not yet “impaired,” or pathogen-polluted, according to state standards. (The Regional Water Quality Control Board does list Lagunitas Creek as impaired.)

Monday’s presentation was held in a standing-room only Lagunitas School Multipurpose Room, and views among the nearly 100 attendees ranged from praise of the steering committee’s presentation to outright rejection of its points. Some, including 30-year Woodacre resident Michael Chadwick, spoke up as the public comment period grew heated, and appealed to the crowd to engage in open dialogue.

“We are a community that needs to talk to each other,” Mr. Chadwick said. “I hope that happens, rather than one side keeping to themselves and the other side sticking to their guns.”

The wastewater group will host a meeting on the proposed project at 7 p.m. on Thursday, April 9, also in the Lagunitas School’s Multipurpose Room.