Septic Policy

toilet1Nine years ago, I worked with then-Assemblymember Hannah-Beth Jackson and the California environmental health agencies to draft Assembly Bill 885,which finally required the State Water Board to regulate water quality from septic systems in a systematic way.  Shockingly, the state had never required water quality performance standards for septic systems.  The cornerstone of the bill put tougher requirements on septic systems near nutrient and fecal bacteria impaired waters. It placed minimal siting, design and construction requirements on septic systems throughout the state, e.g. no more cesspools or wooden septic tanks.  The bill was written in response to beach and creek water quality problems caused or exacerbated by poorly operated, designed or sited septic systems.  Surfrider Beach and Malibu Lagoon, and Rincon on the Ventura-Santa Barbara county border were high-profile examples.

Nine years later, the State Water Board still hasn’t approved the regulations required by AB 885.  There were two multiple stakeholder negotiation processes that failed to reach agreement on final regulations.  The board has come out with numerous draft regulations, but it never approved them.  Recently, the panel came out with draft regulations and an Environmental Impact Report on the regulations.  I am convinced that the regs and the EIR were designed to upset anyone that has an on-site wastewater treatment system, regulates those systems at the local government level, or swims in waters polluted by such systems.  In short, the document pisses off everyone.

Last week, I went to a public workshop on the draft EIR at Malibu High School.  There were about 100 people in the audience and none of them were happy.  The fear-mongering by the water board staff in the introduction set the tone for the evening.

The staff member claimed that the cost of compliance with the new regs would be about $45K.  That’s a lot of cash, even for Malibu residents. However, his statement was just flat wrong  and it led to a homeowner reaction comparable to an orange alert from Homeland Security. In addition, staff stated that the environmentally superior alternative in the EIR was to add these uber-pricey systems on all 1.2 million systems in California!

Adding kerosene to the issue, Andrew Sheldon, the city’s environmental health specialist, said beachfront property owners are looking at total septic system upgrade costs of as much as $200,000, about the same as the median price of a house in the U.S.  These ridiculous estimates were based on the mistaken assumption that every system within 600 feet of an impaired water would have to build package treatment plants that would produce near-potable water. The requirement would be susbstantial ($45K) for a few homes near Malibu Creek and Lagoon, but only $5K to $10K for homes near the beach to add disinfection to their systems.

Also, the regs require groundwater monitoring for every parcel with a drinking water well on site.  Sounds reasonable until you realize that 600,000 of the 1.2 million properties with on-site wastewater treatment systems have wells.  That is an enormous amount of monitoring that will provide trivial benefit to California, especially since the state is about to adopt a requirement for nutrient management plans with monitoring for every groundwater basin in California.

Heal the Bay’s biggest concern, other than the chaos created by the EIR and the horrible regulations, is to fix the regs so that they actually solve water quality problems.  Allowing sewage disposal two feet above groundwater does not protect groundwater.  The regulations fail to require all on-site systems to upgrade to nitrogen removal and/or disinfection if they are within 600 feet of nutrient and/or fecal bacteria impaired waters.   Instead, local health agencies or the regional water boards have to order septic system upgrades if they can prove that the individual systems are polluting or if inspectors turn in their own clients. The regulation doesn’t even require retrofit system improvements upon sale.  Also, the regs allow system owners up to 13 years to connect to a sewer system rather than upgrading their on-site systems.

Nine years.  No statewide progress.  No support for the draft regulations or EIR.  No water quality improvements. Where will the State Water Board go now?  Will they put lipstick on the pig and try to “fix” the regulation?  That never seems to work.  Or will they admit they messed up and rewrite the regulations ASAP, so California can protect public health and aquatic life?  After blowing hundreds of thousands of dollars on the environmental review process, the answer still isn’t clear.

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