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Mendocino water systems must comply with state regs

A logo featuring a water drop inside a circle and the words "Mendocino City Community Services District."
MCCSD website
MCCSD website
The Mendocino City Community Services District logo.

Businesses in the town of Mendocino must fill out a survey to determine if they meet the state's definition of a public water system, then must comply with regs or figure out a way to consolidate. the source of the water and who will consolidate with whom remain uncertain.

June 28, 2022 — About a hundred property owners in the town of Mendocino have received a letter from the State Water Board’s Division of Drinking Water, asking them to complete a questionnaire to determine whether or not they are operating a public water system.

It’s the first step in regulating businesses that may be serving water to the public without the inspections and treatments and permits required by law to prevent water-borne diseases. And it may be the first step in a state-regulated “regional solution” that includes the Town of Mendocino consolidating with other water users, though who would consolidate with whom and where the water would come from are questions that haven’t been answered yet. It’s also not entirely clear why the state and the county have not synchronized efforts to find out what kinds of businesses should have been identified as public water systems when they were first setting up shop.

Zachary Rounds is the Mendocino District Engineer for the State Water Resources Control Board Division of Drinking Water, overseeing public water systems in Mendocino, Lake and Napa Counties. It doesn’t take much to meet the definition of a public water system.

“A public water system, at its most basic, is an entity that serves potable water for domestic use, and that serves at least 25 people, 60 days a year…I say if you have a restaurant that’s open one day a week, all year round, you actually are not a public water system, but if it’s two days a week, that would be 104 days with 25 people, that would make you a public water system,” he explained. “You could also be a public water system if you have 15 service connections with year-round residents.”

At Monday’s meeting of the Mendocino City Community Services District board, Rounds told directors what it will take to permit each system. “The water system needs to demonstrate that they have adequate technical, managerial and financial capacity to operate as a public water system…different tests on the water to ensure that it’s free from various forms of contamination, adequate source and storage capacity; that they’re essentially financially stable enough to operate a public water system without eventually falling into ruin; that they have adequate managerial control over the water system; that they are actually the ones that control the water right there…we typically work with the water system to ensure a complete permit package,” he said. “After we’ve received the complete permit package, we’ll usually do a final review, perform an inspection of the water system, make final determinations, and, if they meet the criteria, issue a permit.”

The letter says that the water board will not initiate enforcement actions against systems that are working to come into compliance. Donna Feiner of Feiner Fixings, a plumber and water operator who manages 27 water systems on the coast, was also at the meeting. She took a question about the rough costs of running a water system, though there are a lot of variables, and no two are exactly the same. “So once a month you have to check for bacteria in the water,” she said. “It’s coliform and e. Coli. And quarterly you have to check the well for bacteria and e. Coli. I usually find that the paperwork takes about five, six hundred dollars to do, because it’s a lot. And then it’s usually a visit once a week to check the system, and then it’s sampling once a month, and then once a year for nitrate. So, figuring two hundred dollars a month to cover that. Those are just rough numbers. And then whatever it needs to bring them into compliance.”

And “bad bacties,” or high bacteria levels, are not always hypothetical, as Feiner recalled in one system she managed. The tank didn’t have a good cover, so birds would sit on top of it and foul the water. “They had to fix the tank so that didn't happen anymore, and then put in a chlorination system to keep the water safe,” she concluded.

Feiner’s own business expenses are rising too, with the cost of chlorine doubling and the price of caustic soda much higher than they were before the pandemic. And a lab on the coast has closed, which means she has to be precise about timing the delivery of water samples to a lab in Ukiah.

Rounds said the state sees advantages to working with larger water entities, though he suggested that local organizations are welcome to propose solutions that might not include each and every business going through the permitting process. Director Howard Hauck asked if the state would be willing to pay for a larger community water system. Rounds replied that, “We are interested in water systems consolidating with each other,” because the state finds that working with a few larger water systems is more resilient and more efficient than working with lots of small ones. “Most of the consolidations that I’ve witnessed have been small systems connecting to a much larger water system,” he noted.

However, he added that the division of financial assistance would be better equipped than he to answer questions about funding opportunities.

Director Christina Aranguren mentioned that there have been over 200 consolidation projects in the state since 2016. The state water board has not identified the parties to the potential consolidation, if that even turns out to be how the county or the town decide to make sure the water meets state safety requirements.

Rounds pointed out that typically, smaller users connecting to already-existing permitted systems pay hookup fees to cover future improvements and ongoing maintenance. There are three existing water systems in the town. Rounds said he personally doesn’t know what the source of the water for a larger system would be.

Director Dennak Murphy addressed the lingering uncertainties, and encouraged a vigorous public process of figuring out how to meet an age of water scarcity. “Major decisions on how we build that resiliency needs to involve the community in a full discussion,” he said. “I would hesitate to jump to conclusions at this point as to how that resiliency would be built.”

Local News
Sarah Reith came to Mendocino County in 2008 and worked as a reporter and freelancer, joining KZYX as a community news reporter in 2017. She became the KZYX News Director in March, 2023.