Suing Over Septics


Despite years of public outcry at Rincon and other locales, the State Water Board has been slow to adopt mandated regulations on septic systems

Enough is enough.  Although Heal the Bay generally only uses litigation as a last resort, we do have our limits.  On Tuesday, Santa Barbara environmental group Heal the Oceans and Heal the Bay filed a lawsuit against the State Water Resources Control Board for its failure to implement Assembly Bill 885, which required the Board to develop regulations for on-site wastewater treatment systems. AB 885 was authored by former assembly member Hannah-Beth Jackson in 1999 and Gov. Davis signed it into law in 2000. The bill required the Board to develop regulations for the siting, permitting and operation of on-site wastewater treatment systems, or OWTS, by 2004.

The regulations took aim at septic systems, which pose a serious threat to water quality at several famous beaches up and down the coast.  After seven years of patience and a decade of regulatory negotiations with the state, county health agencies, OWTS experts and local government representatives, the environmental groups involved felt that they had no choice but to sue the state to ensure that the law would be implemented. Coast Law Group filed the suit on behalf of the organizations.

Both groups were instrumental in the passage of the law as bill sponsors.  In the 1990s, while Hillary Hauser and Heal the Oceans led efforts to clean up chronically polluted Rincon, Heal the Bay pushed for cleanup at the even more polluted Surfrider Beach.  Both groups noted scientific studies that found human pathogens in the adjacent coastal lagoons — strong evidence that nearby septic systems were causing or contributing to chronic water quality problems that posed health risks to the surfing community.

By the Board’s own reports, there are approximately 1.2 million septic systems in California. Estimates on how much sewage is discharged daily into the ground range from a few hundred million to over a billion gallons.  That’s more sewage than is discharged from the Hyperion Treatment Plant, but unlike Hyperion, the water quality coming from septic systems is essentially unregulated.

There are no state or federal water quality requirements that apply to OWTS effluent.  And we wonder why so much of California’s groundwater is contaminated by nitrates, so many creeks and lagoons have eutrophication problems, and why numerous beaches adjacent to communities on septics have high fecal bacteria densities.

While the Board has spent the last decade trying to put together regulations, Heal the Oceans led a successful campaign to sewer the homes in the lower Rincon watershed.  Also, the Regional Water Board and the State Board have ordered Malibu to implement a phased OWTS ban in their civic center area starting immediately for most new developments, and by 2015 for existing development.

Clearly the environmental groups didn’t sit back and wait for board members to do their legally mandated jobs, but neither group could have predicted the lack of progress on an issue that is so critical to public health and aquatic life.

Hannah-Beth Jackson, now a consultant to Heal the Ocean on AB 885 compliance, stated: “The delay occurring on this issue is truly embarrassing. We were able to land a man on the moon in less time than it’s taken for the State of California to get these regulations in place.”  Although the man on the moon metaphor may be a little dated, you get the point.  If autocratic governments in the Middle East can fall in weeks, California should be able to develop septic system regulations in less than a decade.

Anyone who has followed my blog over the last few years has probably picked up on the fact that I’m a cynic by nature.  As jaded as I am, I never thought that the Board would fail so miserably on developing standards so critical for cleaning up California’s polluted aquatic resources.  There were at least two facilitated negotiation sessions, half a dozen draft regulations, a horrible, near-final regulation that almost led to civil unrest in the Santa Rosa region, a draft Environmental Impact Report, and about 10 public meetings.  And what does California have to show for these efforts?  A lot of polluted groundwater, creeks and lagoons and beaches.

The politics of sewage should never supersede our need for clean water or the state’s requirements to follow the laws that the California legislature crafts and the Governor approves. Heal the Ocean and Heal the Bay hope that this lawsuit will give the Board the impetus to finish the job of developing these long-overdue OWTS regulations.


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