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Land Grab

West county coalition fights a controversial Santa Rosa wastewater plan

By Trine Miller

Eminent domain--that's what ranch manager Jim Jacobs describes as we peer down the bright green, cow-speckled slope of Boothe Ranch just outside the small, rural, west county town of Valley Ford. It's also the tale he tells of a huge earthen dam, erected and filled with tertiary-treated wastewater from Santa Rosa, completely covering the narrow valley, the 1850s homestead, the barn--everything.

And it's what the city of Santa Rosa may have to claim if it wants any land out here.

This isn't a Grimm's fairy tale Jacobs is describing; it's something called the West County Wastewater Plan. The city of Santa Rosa is studying five sites in the Valley Ford/Bloomfield/Two Rock area as potential locations for an enormous reservoir, which will hold 4 1/2 billion gallons of treated wastewater. The idea is that the reservoir could be used to irrigate crops and pasture, meeting the city's goals to reuse and recycle wastewater instead of simply dumping it.

The problem is that a lot of west county ranchers may not want it.

At least one rancher on each of the targeted sites is against selling sell their land for reservoir use. Residents are concerned that the timeless towns, the small homesteads, and the bucolic landscape would all change with the West County Plan. Most of the beef-cattle ranchers and dairy farmers have been there for generations, and even those who might want to sell their land someday don't want it destroyed.

Not to mention that the west county isn't farmland. "There's basically nothing to irrigate," says Jacobs, slightly dumbfounded. "These are dairy people and ranchers."

Jacobs has managed the Boothe ranch for 16 years. He knows the land like the back of his hand, pointing out gullies caused by natural springs and the water-rich reeds growing in the valley below. He says there's no mistake that the west county is filled with cattle and dairy ranches.

The city believes land could be used to grow silage such as oats and ryegrass; however, by ranchers' and engineers' estimations, crops would require a slope of less than 15 percent. Amid the rolling hills, there are only about 12,000 acres that meet that standard. The project requires 6,500 for irrigation, and if unwilling ranchers decline to use the water, the city will be hard pressed to find a place to store it all.

Jacobs is part of the Agricultural Property Rights Alliance, a coalition of 250 dairy farmers, ranchers, and landowners who organized to fight the wastewater project. They have a red map showing landowners who won't take water if it involves condemnation, and the red zone covers pretty much the entire project area. "People are on this map because they don't want to see this land condemned," Jacobs says.

APRA members say dialogue with the city has been limited to a one-way communiqué, most often a court injunction. Indeed, Santa Rosa is the only city in the area to deny APRA representatives a chance to schedule agenda time to talk about the problem with council members. "Nobody told [residents in the area] the ranch was targeted for a reservoir," Jacobs says. Ranchers tried to keep the city off their land, but two lawsuits later, the city had court injunctions to survey all five sites (involving 15 landowners) and to do invasive studies of the soil.

Santa Rosa has about five different alternatives for wastewater disposal, including higher discharge in the Russian River and a south county irrigation plan. But Kathy Tresch, whose dairy farm extends to bucolic Button Ranch, doesn't feel at ease. Of all the west county sites, theirs requires the smallest dam and may be the least costly.

"I still feel threatened," she says. "But I do feel optimistic. I think we can prevent it from happening. If they couldn't do it last time, when we were naive, I don't think they'll get through it this time."

Button Ranch is also the water source for much of the Two Rock area. If a reservoir were erected there, it could contaminate that supply with nitrates, and a fresh-water source would have to be built. That would affect planning and growth throughout the west county region.

And the project could prove costly for consumers, critics say. Right now ratepayers are paying approximately $10 per person per month, perhaps the most expensive water rate in the state. That could double under the West County Plan, since the city estimates the project could cost upwards of $300 million.

APRA doesn't tell the full side of the story, says Ed Brauner, Santa Rosa assistant city manager. He says the city has talked to people who are against the project, but also to people who are willing to sell and irrigate. "My personal feeling is that map somewhat misrepresents what the facts are," he says about the group's red-zone map. "They have concern over the condemnation, but many said they do want water."

Neil McIsaac, who runs a dairy out of Two Rock, thinks irrigation could be beneficial. "I couldn't say exactly what I'd use it for, but if water comes it opens up whole new possibilities," he notes, saying that ranchers need to keep an open mind to agricultural possibilities. "I could be all wrong, too. It may not work for me.

"Personally, if it were a done deal, I don't think too many farmers would say no [to the water]. But I think I'm probably in the minority."

But APRA's Tresch believes some people don't understand the scope of the project. "Unless you read every document, there's no way to know what this project really means," she explains. "I think they'd really be shocked at how it would affect their property rights. . . . The city can come onto your property anytime. All these regulatory agencies move into your life."

Brauner does say that if people don't want water, the West County Plan is probably moot. He stands firm on the city's decision to go through with the study, partly because he thinks it is viable, and partly because the city feels legally obligated to do an Environmental Impact Report for the state, and an Environmental Impact Study for the federal Army Corps of Engineers.

"We think all the alternatives are feasible," he notes. "There are questions whether they'll be politically feasible."

APRA wanted the city to stop the project's environmental studies altogether. When APRA members tried to get on the meeting agenda of the Santa Rosa City Council to voice their concerns, Mayor Sharon Wright said that would be "premature."

"How can they have a full understanding [of the project's impact] if they don't have our side of it?" Jacobs asks incredulously.

The environmental effects of this project are a huge concern to residents and environmentalists, who fear runoff and groundwater seepage could pollute local waterways, as well as springs and wells. Clyde Nance, conservation co-chair for the Madrone Chapter of the Audubon Society, says reservoir sites include watersheds that are perilously close to two ecologically sensitive estuaries: the Estero Americano and the Estero de San Antonio.

"The water would have an adverse effect on the esteros if it were ever introduced," he says. "It could create an entirely different balance of estuarine life."

But Santa Rosa officials argue that the project is safe. "I haven't seen anything in the EIR so far showing environmental effects that would be so devastating we couldn't do it," Brauner responds.

Still, many west county residents say the city will have to force the project every step of the way. Jacobs says the human factors are compelling enough to leave it alone. "These are people who could lose their homes, their ranches, their way of life."

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From the Mar. 7-13, 1996 issue of the Sonoma Independent

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