In 1975, scientists found that the Petaluma River was so heavily contaminated with E. Coli and other bacteria that it was unsafe to have any contact with the water. The presumed sources of the bacteria included animal and human waste running off of ranches, stables, farmland, and out of broken waste water treatment and septic systems.
Today, little has changed. The Petaluma River remains dangerously contaminated, with high levels of bacteria showing up in every single water test taken in the river.
Despite the findings nearly 45 years ago, the agency responsible for protecting the watershed—the San Francisco Bay Regional Water Quality Control Board—waited until 2019 to address the Petaluma's troubling bacteria levels.
And unfortunately, the Water Board’s new plan doesn’t take the right steps to reduce bacteria pollution in the Petaluma. The Clean Water Act mandates that agencies start by identifying the specific sources under a regulatory strategy known as a Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL).
Though the Water Board is calling their new policy a TMDL, it doesn’t establish where the bacteria pollution is coming from, by how much the bacteria sources must be reduced, or how progress will be monitored and enforced.
“It’s misleading for the Water Board to call this a TMDL, and their approach is doomed to take decades to solve the problem,” says Baykeeper Staff Attorney Ben Eichenberg. “While Baykeeper appreciates the Board’s stated goal of making water quality in the Petaluma River better, the agency is failing its actual obligation to make the river truly safe for people.”
The Petaluma River feeds into creeks across the North Bay and Marin, and eventually connects with San Francisco Bay. It attracts boaters, paddle boarders, kayakers, and anglers.
If cleaned up, this beautiful waterway could become a world-class destination for water sports enthusiasts and shoreline activities of all kinds, while contributing to a healthier San Francisco Bay.
As the Petaluma River TMDL heads to the EPA for a final review, Baykeeper will continue to push for a smarter approach. We can't let another 45 years go by before it's safe to swim in the Petaluma.
Photo of the Petaluma River looking toward Sonoma Mountain by Scott Hess, Flickr/CC