State Fines North Bay Water Agency Over Massive Sewage Spill

An aerial view of the Sonoma Valley County Sanitation District treatment plant, where a valve malfunction and leaky pipes resulted in more than two million gallons of sewage spilled last year. (Courtesy of the Sonoma County Water Agency)

State water regulators have issued a more than $400,000 fine against a Sonoma County water agency over the release of more than two million gallons of sewage last year.

This week, the California Regional Water Quality Control Board and the Sonoma Valley County Sanitation District agreed to the financial settlement over one of the district's largest sewage spills in recent memory.

"The fine sends the message to other Bay Area wastewater agencies that they need to be proactive about taking steps to prevent spills of this magnitude from their systems," said Sejal Choksi-Chugh, executive director of San Francisco Baykeeper.

The release of partially treated wastewater from a district water recycling plant began the afternoon of Jan. 11, 2019. District crews discovered the problem the following morning. The release lasted more than 21 hours.

Early on, Sonoma Water officials, who manage the district, acknowledged that the spill was caused by a faulty valve. The problem sent sewage backward in a pipeline that handles waste from homes and businesses in the Sonoma Valley.

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A top official at the agency said then that the incident marked the largest unauthorized discharge in the recent past.

Sewage flowed into Schell Slough, a wetland near the community of Schellville, south of Highway 12. District officials initially said that the wastewater then snaked through a series of sloughs before finally dumping into the waters of the San Pablo Bay National Wildlife Refuge.

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But a spokeswoman for the regional water control board said this week that it was highly unlikely that the sewage traveled that far, about four miles downstream.

The board says the district violated state water pollution law and must pay the $427,600 fine. However it can cut the penalty in half if it conducts 800 sewer line inspections over the next three years.

Pam Jeane, assistant general manager of Sonoma Water, said the agency regrets the incident.

"A key part of the district's mission is to protect the environment, and we take environmental compliance very seriously," Jeane said in a statement.

"The situation that led to the discharge was immediately remedied upon discovery and we have taken every step to ensure this type of failure will not happen again," she said.

The district plans to "accelerate video inspection and smoke testing efforts to identify and eliminate sources of groundwater infiltration and unauthorized storm water connections that cause sanitary sewer overflows," Jeane said.