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Willow Creek's Catch-22

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To the fear of some and joy of others, Willow Creek is destined to make one of those "top 10 small towns you must move to now" lists any minute. In the last year alone, Willow Creek has seen the expansion of the swanky Coho Cottages, the grand opening of River Song Natural Foods, the construction of a shiny Ace Hardware on prime real estate along Highway 299 and the launch of a new indoor gardening and farm store. The town's farm-to-table image is bolstered by well attended events like "A Taste of Willow Creek," a weekly farmer's market and regular wine tastings hosted by local vintners.

Yet the budding community is finding itself in a pickle. Willow Creek currently does not have any centralized wastewater treatment infrastructure. Existing homes and businesses rely on septic tanks and leach lines entirely. The lack of sewage infrastructure means new business opportunities in downtown Willow Creek are restricted to those that use little water, stifling the town's economic development potential. Water-dependent businesses such as hotels and restaurants are not likely to make it through Humboldt County's permitting process. If they did, required measures for wastewater compliance would likely be cost-prohibitive. As Greg Painter, a co-owner of Humboldt Land Company, explained, many of the downtown lots are simply not big enough for the physical building and an adequate septic system. Existing downtown businesses and property owners are already challenged by the expense of frequent sewage pumping, exacerbated by a high groundwater table and the natural topography of the business district.

A centralized sewage treatment facility comes with a hefty price tag. Willow Creek Community Services District General Manager Steve Paine has spent years in the tireless pursuit of funding to design and ultimately build the needed infrastructure. The District came close in 2004, when it received funding from the North Coast Water Quality Control Board for designing and engineering the project, only to have the money yanked after it was awarded and reallocated to the community of Tulelake. At the time, Tulelake was experiencing a wastewater emergency due the failure of infrastructure in their potato plants. Paine recollects the incident as an example of how politicized funding for these projects has become.

Despite the setback, Paine continues to seek funding for the project. The district's current plan hinges on a possible public-private partnership with a proposed mixed-income housing development planned adjacent to the Trinity River near downtown Willow Creek. The property, owned by Ron Gurin, is not likely to receive a green flag for development before a centralized wastewater treatment facility is constructed. Suffering from the lack of wastewater infrastructure, Gurin is willing to locate the future sewage treatment plant near his development.

For the time being, Willow Creek's roughly 1,800 residents are unhindered by this great sewage conundrum. This might not be the case for long, warned Greg Chisholm, another co-owner of Humboldt Land Company. The State Water Quality Control Board's deadline for public comments on its scoping of new regulations to upgrade residential septic systems was February 23rd. Depending on how the board rewrites the rules, property owners -- especially those closer to the Trinity River -- may find themselves facing requirements for costly septic upgrades and becoming the next group of stakeholders to rally around a wastewater treatment plant for Willow Creek.

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