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Annual Report 2007

While others may cleverly try and use the letter of the law to subvert its spirit, River Watch believes that just as spirit informs matter the spirit of the law should inform the letter of the law.

To All of Our Supporters:

In 1972 Congress passed the Clean Water Act. Congress declared its objective was “to restore and maintain the chemical, physical, and biological integrity of the Nations waters.”, and announced a “national goal that the discharge of pollutants into navigable waters be eliminated by 1985.” Nearly a quarter of a century later this goal has not been achieved. Efforts toward achieving it are undermined by dischargers of pollutants unwilling to pay the necessary costs associated with compliance, instead seeking to shift the burden and costs associated with pollution to the general public.

Suspicious of the executive’s commitment to enforce public interest laws, Congress, in its wisdom, placed citizen suit provisions into public interest statutes such as civil rights and environmental laws allowing groups like River Watch to enforce environmental laws when others fear to do so.

In 2001 River Watch sued the City of Healdsburg for discharging treated sewage into Basalt Pond, a water of the United States, without a Clean Water Act permit. The City claimed a permit was not necessary as the Pond was not a water of the United States, basing its claim upon the conservatives’ view that the Clean Water Act only extends protection to waters that are navigable in fact, eliminating 90% of surface waters and wetlands from protection under the Clean Water Act and opening up these areas to development.

After 7 years the lawsuit against the City of Healdsburg finally concluded when the United States Supreme Court declined to review the decision of the Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit that Basalt Pond was a water of the United States protected by the Clean Water Act.
Northern California River Watch v. City of Healdsburg, 2004 U.S. Dist. Lexis 1008, (N.D. Cal. January 23, 2004) ]
Northern California River Watch v. City of Healdsburg, 496 F.3d 993 (9th Cir. 2007) ]

The 9th Circuit’s decision in favor of River Watch helped clarify the fractured and muddled Supreme Court’s decision in Rapanos wherein the 4 conservative judges sought to significantly limit the reach of the Clean Water Act but failed to receive a 5th vote except to remand the case for further fact findings.
Rapanos v. United States 126 S. Ct. 2208 (2006) ]

The 9th Circuit is by far the largest of the federal courts. Its decision in the Healdsburg lawsuit is authority in all western states and significantly extends protection to surface waters and wetlands beyond the conservative plurality in Rapanos.

Basalt Pond was formed from a gravel pit excavated from 1967 to 1984. The City of Healdsburg began discharging partially treated sewage to Basalt Pond in the late 1970s. At its closest point, Basalt Pond is just 50 feet from the Russian River. A man-made levee separating the Pont from the River is approximately 50 feet at its top. The levee has failed numerous times; and, in the absence of the replacement sections of the levee, the two waterbodies would be in constant contact.

Basalt Pond is a quarter mile wide, a half mile long and 53 feet deep. The City of Healdsburg discharges enough sewage yearly into the Pond to completely fill it. All of this partially treated sewage eventually makes its way to the Russian River. Monitoring wells around the Pond indicated that pollutants originating in Basalt Pond reach the Russian River including chloride, fluoride, arsenic, aluminum, barium, nickel, fluoride, orhtophosphate, phosphate, total dissolved solids and estrogen disruptors.

Like many of the gravel pits adjacent to any surface water, there exists a significant nexus between Basalt Pond and the Russian River. It serves as habitat corridor for birds and other animals as well as replacement habitat for the loss of Russian River still water habitat. Basalt Pond amplifies the capacity of the entire Russian River ecosystem to support resident and migratory birds. It serves as shared habitat for local wildlife and vegetation and acts to filter and purify water draining to the Russian River. Basalt Pond functions as an integral part of the aquatic ecosystem of the Russian River and in essence is an integral part of the Russian River.

To dischargers such as the City of Healdsburg these facts are seen as impediments to their goal of shifting the burden and costs associated with pollution to the general public. River Watch is very proud of its team of volunteers, attorneys, legal assistants and investigators for their work in bringing these facts to light and life through legal activism, and whose efforts have made River Watch one of the most successful environmental public interest groups in Northern California.