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Board of Supervisors Department

Lower Russian River Wastewater CAG

Lower Russian River Wastewater Citizens Advisory Group


The Lower Russian River Wastewater Citizens Advisory Group (CAG) meets monthly to discuss progress on the Monte Rio/Villa Grande wastewater solutions pilot project, regulatory status, and potential governance and funding options. 

Meetings are generally held the fourth Thursday of each month from 6 to 8 p.m., and since COVID-19, meetings have been held exclusively online by Zoom.  Members of the public are welcome to attend. For information on how to participate in an upcoming Zoom meeting, please contact Ombudsman Michael Makdisi at

Monte Rio/Villa Grande Wastewater Solutions Pilot Project

Project Background:

Several economically disadvantaged communities along the lower Russian River contain many homes and businesses that rely on septic systems and cesspools for treatment and disposal of septic waste. Many of these systems do not meet current standards and upgrading or replacing them may be challenging given current and anticipated rules. Because Monte Rio and Villa Grande (MR/VG) qualified as economically disadvantaged communities, they were eligible to access significant levels of grant funding for planning, design and construction of wastewater treatment systems and were therefore chosen as priority areas for addressing inadequate septic systems. In August of 2019, with input from the Interagency Team (IT) and CAG, the Sonoma County Water Agency (now known as Sonoma Water) requested planning funds from California's Clean Water State Revolving Fund to develop a feasibilty study and report about wastewater treatment alternatives in the MR/VG area.

Project Objectives and Description:

The MR/VG Wastewater Solutions Pilot Project aims to identify practical and affordable solutions to help property owners meet current and anticipated standards for septic systems and comply with the new state and county requirements to address pollution in the Russian River. This project is also intended to help inform other communities facing similar challenges.

This Project will first develop a description of existing conditions and of regulatory and environmental limitations/requirement, next will identify and consider the feasible wastewater alternatives, and then pursue designing and implementing/constructing the preferred solution(s).  This study, design and implementation can be broken into five phases: (1) apply for a planning grant, (2) engage a consultant to study the feasible alternatives, (3) select the preferred options, including preliminary design, (4) launch the solution and finish the design, and (5) implement the construction project(s). A phased approach will ensure that community, local, regional, and state partners have the opportunity to work collaboratively to identify viable options for providing adequate wastewater solutions for properties in the project areas.

Please follow this link for a flyer that provides a graphical timeline and additional details about the Monte Rio and Villa Grande Wastewater Solutions Pilot Project.

Project Status:

After funding was secured as a result of the 2019 planning application, Brelje & Race Consulting was selected to conduct the feasibility study.  Their work is expected to explore a variety of wastewater treatment alternatives for the two communities, including, but not limited to, construction of an area wide collection system with discharge to a treatment plant, construction of a limited collection system for identified areas, upgrades to individual OWTS, construction of cluster systems for small neighborhoods, and evaluation of alternative forms of wastewater treatment, including experimental toilet systems. The feasibility study is also expected to assess governance issues (including evaluation of the potential for an onsite wastewater management district), to consider funding sources for the various alternatives identified in the study, and to seek community input to keep the citizenry aware of the progress of the study and to identify community support for the alternatives that are evaluated.

On Nov. 29, 2023, a community meeting was held at the Monte Rio Community Center that re-introduced the Monte Rio/Villa Grande Wastewater Solutions Pilot Project and provided an update on the feasibility study.  Please follow this link to access a video of the meeting and to obtain the meeting's written materials.

One of the alternatives being explored by the consultant is connection with the Russian River County Sanitation District (RRCSD).  For more information about the RRCSD, you can view this slide deck, which was presented during the CAG's monthly meeting on Jan. 25, 2024 and which Sonoma Water had previously presented to the North Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board in December 2023.

Background: Changing laws and formation of the IT

In 2018 a group of professionals from local and state agencies formed the Lower Russian River Interagency Team (IT).  These professionals were involved in the implementation of new state regulations, also known as the Russian River Pathogen Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) Action Plan. These regulations were intended to help protect water quality and public health by reducing pathogen levels in the Russian River Watershed. Among other source categories, septic systems and cesspools were identified as likely contributors of pathogens.  Consequently, the new state regulations will likely include additional requirements for septic systems in many areas of the Russian River Watershed.  In turn, the County is working to update its local septic regulations and standards, mainly contained in the County's Onsite Wastewater Treatment System (OWTS) Manual, in order to be compliant with the state regulations, including the Pathgen TMDL Action Plan as well as the State OWTS Policy.

The IT was formed to establish communication and coordination as the response to the regulations unfolds. Their meetings are attended by a member of the CAG. Once the state approves the rules, the following communities will likely be subject to the new rules and requirements: Jenner, Cazadero, Camp Meeker, Monte Rio, Villa Grande, Guerneville, Rio Nido, Summer Home Park, Hacienda, Mirabel, and Fitch Mountain.

Message from the CAG

July 2023

Residents in Monte Rio/Villa Grande have known for a long time that there are problems with septic systems along the lower Russian River. We have made many attempts to address the issue - all informative, none successful. The State and County are now issuing new regulations that will require us (as individuals) to take action over the coming years. We, along with others in the County, will have to determine whether to upgrade existing septic systems, create community systems, or connect by sewer to an existing wastewater treatment plant.

To help uncover solutions, the State and County have launched a pilot project for the Monte Rio/Villa Grande area. The State and County convened our citizens advisory group (CAG) to help inform the pilot project and assist the agencies directing the study and identifying solutions.

Sonoma Water obtained State Funds on behalf of the County to support a study of possible options. A local consultant, Brelje & Race Engineering, was engaged to conduct the study, and started work in the winter of 2023. The study will explore solutions and develop funding options. Community meetings are being planned at milestones in the study and throughout the life of the project, whatever solutions are pursued.

Funding sources are being sought to help homeowners defray costs. We believe that special consideration should be given to senior citizens and people with limited incomes. 

About the CAG

The CAG has been meeting monthly since it was created in 2018 by the interagency Team (IT). The CAG is solely advisory and not a desicion-making body.  It is engaged with efforts to develop sustainable and affordable wastewater solutions for communities in the Lower Russian River area to help improve local water quality and meet the new State and County requirements.  The CAG has two primary roles: (1) communicating with and advising the IT, which is coordinating regulatory and implementation efforts, including a wastewater treatment improvement pilot project for the Monte Rio Villa Grande area, and (2) supporting citizens in understanding how the pilot project’s wastewater solutions, in combination with the new regulations, might impact them.

The CAG is also working with the IT to help identify potential infrastructure and grant opportunities that could assist homeowners and local businesses with the cost of improved wastewater treatment, including onsite septic replacement, small common sewage systems, and district sewer system connection. The CAG is committed to engaging community members with government agencies to work toward effective, long-term solutions to wastewater issues along the lower Russian River, with priority given to affordability, practicability and openness to alternatives.

Who is the CAG?

The CAG is a volunteer citizens group of nine residents of Villa Grande and Monte Rio, as well as upstream communities. Members include the current and prior manager of Sweetwater Springs Water District. The Monte Rio representative to the Municipal Advisory Committee (MAC) is an ad hoc member.

Regular members:

  • Brenda Adelman (Rio Nido), Russian River Watershed Protection Committee
  • Kyla Brooke (Villa Grande), Realtor, President Emeritus of Friends of Villa Grande
  • Dan Fein (Monte Rio), Technology Consultant
  • Brian Grant (Monte Rio), Project Coordinator with Praxis Architects
  • Rich Holmer (Villa Grande), Retired Septic System Consultant
  • Steve Mack (Forestville), Retired General Manager of Sweetwater Springs Water District
  • Eric Schanz, General Manager of Sweetwater Springs Water District
  • Steve Trippe (Monte Rio), Retired Non-Profit Executive
  • Sarah Yardley (Hacienda), Retired Civil Engineer

Ad-Hoc Member:

  • Cynthia Strecker, Lower Russian River Municipal Advisory Group

Who is the Interagency Team?

The Lower Russian River Wastewater Interagency Team (IT) was initiated to facilitate cooperation between agencies involved in the implementation of the new and updated septic regulations. The IT currently consists of representatives from the County of Sonoma, the North Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board, the County Administrator's Office, Permit Sonoma, and Sonoma Water, and their meetings are attended by a CAG representative.

Interagency Team Members:

  • Charles Reed, North Coast Regional Water Board
  • Kelsey Cody, North Coast Regional Water Board
  • Mike Reese, North Coast Regional Water Board
  • Nathan Quarles, Permit Sonoma
  • Steve Koldis, Sonoma Water
  • Tracy Lyons, Supervisor Hopkins' Office
  • Barbara Lee, County Administrator's Office
  • Michael Makdisi, Ombudsman

CAG Actions

The CAG has:

  • Made presentations on the CAG’s work to the Lower Russian River Municipal Advisory Council and the State and Regional Water Quality Control Boards.
  • Participated in the selection process to identify consultant(s) for a feasibility study of potential wastewater solutions and implementation for Monte Rio/Villa Grande. The Consultant presents an update on the study at the monthly CAG meetings.
  • Provided input to the role and selection of the Ombudsperson, who is responsible for supporting county residents in understanding and complying with wastewater regulations. The Ombudsman gives an update on County activities at the monthly CAG meetings.
  • Worked with regulators to address what owners of septic systems can do if their septic systems fail or need improvement while broader solutions are being identified and implemented. (advocating for interim solutions)
  • Introduced our issues to State and Federal elected and agency officials and requested their support in broadening acceptable solutions and identifying funding sources.
  • Hosted tours for Regional Board and Sonoma Water staff of the area to familiarize leadership with the scope and scale of the issues.
  • Met with representatives of the Board of Supervisors (BOS), and encouraged a county-wide approach to wastewater; this resulted in the BOS budgeting a $350K allocation of county funds to better understand the scale of the issue county-wide and creating a full-time, county-wide, permanent clean water program analyst and ombudsperson.
  • Pushed for a more generous interpretation of the State OWTS (Onsite Wastewater Treatment System) Policy in the County OWTS Manual and influenced technical language in the State Board’s LAMP (Local Agency Management Program) and the county’s OWTS manual including the definition of a “Qualified Inspector” of individual septic systems.

The CAG Members are all volunteers. We are committed to working on wastewater issues long-term, and have been a stable group since our inception. We encourage you to reach out to us if you have questions. However, for questions related to your specific situation, please contact the county’s clean water ombudsman, Michael Makdisi, by email (, or by phone (707-565-3747).