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Not a Sewer 

Agriculture, development imperil clean water in Napa Valley

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Between Jan. 19, 2014, and Feb. 7, 2015, St. Helena failed to properly maintain its wastewater treatment plant, and 5 million gallons of partially treated wastewater surged from a torn holding pond and contaminated groundwater and nearby wells. The San Francisco Bay Regional Water Quality Control Board is considering a mandate to compel St. Helena to upgrade its wastewater treatment plant to meet new requirements, or face more penalties.

From 2014 and 2015, the city of Calistoga's Dunaweal wastewater treatment plant released elevated levels of pollutants into the Napa River in violation of its National Pollution Discharge Elimination Systems permit. In addition, Calistoga's wastewater treatment plant utilizes effluent storage ponds adjacent to the river that have been percolating into the river for years. The infrastructure of this problematic facility, which has operated under a cease-and-desist order for the past year, has not been able to handle the sewage load of its current population and has necessitated emergency discharges into the river. Yet the city has approved extensive new resorts and housing developments despite public protests.

The Napa River is home to a unique assemblage of fish. The Environmental Protection Agency listed the Napa River as polluted in 1988 due to pathogens, nutrients and sediment, and the health of the river continues to decline due to higher temperatures and lack of sufficient flows. Groundwater that historically connected with the river is already compromised by over-extraction and drought.

Complicating recent wastewater treatment violations by valley municipalities, Calistoga and Napa violated clean water and potable water laws at their water treatment facilities this year because they failed to manage water flowing from the Conn Creek and Kimball Creek watersheds that were full of contaminates such as nitrates and phosphate. Phosphate is a byproduct of industrial fertilizers applied to grapevines. Invasive plant growth and algae are plaguing our waterways due to contaminates such as phosphate. Some species of algae are harmful to humans and can form lethal toxins. According to the National Marine Fisheries Service, algae toxins probably killed the dolphin that made its way into the Napa River this summer.

The Napa River is not a sewer. This needs attention by all.

Chris Malan is the executive director of the Institute for Conservation Advocacy, Research and Education, and chair of the North Coast Stream Flow Coalition.

Open Mic is a weekly feature in the 'Bohemian.' We welcome your contribution. To have your topical essay of 350 words considered for publication, write

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