Septic Snafu

California’s Water Resources Control Board is trying to adopt regulations aimed at cleaning up the state’s 1.2 million septic tanks.  

It has been trying to adopt the regulations since the fall of 2000. 

Even after eight years, realtors, rural homeowners and local officials continue to complain that the regulations are costly and too cookie-cutter to appreciate local or regional differences.  

One critic described the first set of regulations as ensuring that anyone who needed a septic tank wouldn’t be able to install one. A goodly number of people don’t think the current version is much better. 

Critics also cite the genesis of the bill, which stemmed from complaints by coastal Malibu residents about effluent — yucky stuff  — leaking out of the septic tanks of Malibu Canyon residents and polluting the water. 

Rather than solve the problem, if there was one, locally, then Assemblywoman Hanna-Beth Jackson introduced a bill to create uniform statewide septic standards. 

Her measure would have given the job to the state Department of Health Services. Senate amendments changed it to the water board. 

Jackson is trying to return to the Legislature. A Democrat, she is running for the 19th Senate seat, which includes Santa Barbara and Thousand Oaks. Her opponent is former GOP Assemblyman Tony Strickland. 

While ponderous is a charitable description of the speed at which the wheels of state government turn, taking the better part of a decade to implement legislation approved in August 2000 seems downright glacial. 

It’s not entirely the water board’s fault. The Legislature approved the bill, AB 885, requiring the statewide septic standard – California is one of two states that doesn’t have one – but failed to include money to complete the necessary environmental impact report. 

Despite the lack of cash, the board issued a roughly 170-page review in August 2002 of technologies for the onsite treatment of wastewater in California. 

In December of the same year, the board published a 41-page survey of septage treatment handling and disposal practices. (Editor’s Note: Attention water board writers – septage is not in Webster’s.) 

In January 2003, a 39-page survey of “Wastewater Treatment and System Repair of Failure/Malfunction” followed. 

In early 2005, the board issued a notice that it was going to prepare an environmental impact report accompanied by a 51-page initial study on doing so. 

The 26-page Scoping Plan went public in October 2005. (Editor’s Note: The Air Resources Board recently published the Scoping Plan for reducing greenhouse gas emissions.) A 43-page evaluation of disinfection units for onsite wastewater treatment systems was published in December 2006. 

(Editor’s Note: The Air Resources Board recently published the Scoping Plan for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. It’s worth a look if only to appreciate how daunting reaching AB 32’s emission targets really is. See Table 2 on Page 11.) 

It’s not the length of the septic regulations causing the controversy. The March 13, 2007 iteration clocks in at 16 pages of which three are charts and four are definitions. 

A chief criticism is the cost of the regulations’ requirement that septic tanks be inspected every five years, at a minimum. The regulations recommend the tank be pumped if “the sum of the scum depth and sludge depth exceeds 25 percent of the septic tank depth as measured from the water line to the bottom of the tank.” 

It is also understandable why a rural landowner unfamiliar with the nuances of government-ese might find the regulations somewhat ridiculous. 

The four pages of definitions are studded with lengthy descriptions of the obvious. 

For instance, “cesspool” is defined as an “excavation in the ground receiving wastewater, designed to retain the organic matter and solids, while allowing the liquids to seep into the soil.” 

In case that rural reader needs further clarification “soil” is defined as “the naturally occurring body of porous mineral and organic materials on the land surface and is composed of unconsolidated materials including sand-sized, silt-sized and clay-sized particles mixed with varying amounts of larger fragments and organic material.” 

In addition, “the various combinations of particles differentiate specific soil textures identified in the soil textural triangle developed by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) as found in Soil Survey Staff, USDA; Soil Survey Manual, Handbook 18, U.S. Government Printing Office, Washington D.C., 1993, p.138. For the purposes of this chapter, soil shall contain earthen material of particles smaller than 0.08 inches (2mm) in size.” 

Some of the definitions don’t really match Webster’s. A “person” in Webster’s is a “human” or an “individual.” 

In the septic regulations a “person” is any individual, firm, association, organization, partnership, business trust, corporation, company or unit of local government who is, or that is, subject to this Chapter.” 

Like so many government publications in which ease of comprehension is neither a goal nor a result, the regulations are festooned with acronyms. 

The regulations themselves don’t even admit they govern the operation of septic tanks. Their subject is “Onsite Wastewater Treatment Systems” which are then referred to as OWTS throughout the remainder of the regulations. 

The list definitions even include the acronyms. “ETI” – See “Evapotranspiration and infiltration bed,” the item immediately following the acronym. 

“Evapotranspiration and infiltration (ETI) bed means a subsurface dispersal bed in which soil capillarity and root uptake help to disperse the effluent from a septic tank or supplemental treatment system through surface evaporation, soil absorption and plant transpiration.” 

“Mottling,” the regulations inform is “characterized by spots or blotches of different colors or shades of color.”  (Editor’s Note: Who knew?) 

To ensure it can’t be confused with “soil,” a “rock” is “any naturally formed aggregate of one or more minerals (e.g. granite, shale, marble); or a body of undifferentiated mineral matter (e.g. obsidian) or of solid organic matter (e.g. coal) that is greater than 0.08 inches (2mm) in size.” 

Examining the guts of the regulations, Section 24910 requires that “New OWTS shall be designed, operated and maintained to prevent a condition of pollution or nuisance.” 

The owner of a site, which has a new OWTS or a replaced OWTS on it, must have an operation and maintenance (O&M) manual prepared by a “qualified professional.” 

A “qualified professional” is “an individual who possess a registered environmental health specialist certificate or is currently licensed as a professional engineer or professional geologist.” 

The Operation and Maintenance manual needs to include nine things. Among them, “a list of substances that could cause a condition of pollution or nuisance if discharged to the OWTS including but not limited to pharmaceutical drugs and water softener regeneration brines.” 

All new OWTS septic tanks must have access openings with watertight risers set within six inches of finished grade. And those openings must be secured to prevent unauthorized access. 

(Editor’s Note: Like who exactly would be eager to open them up if they didn’t have to?) 

There are some very technical descriptions of how to test “supplemental treatment components” and the proper way to create “dispersal systems,” followed by some charts and graphs. 

The final section of the regulations has also been criticized. It forbids a new OWTS dispersal area – the place the presumably treated effluent ends up – within 600 feet of an “impaired” body of water. 

A June 2005 news story from the San Francisco Chronicle notes that Tomales Bay and parts of the Russian River qualify as “impaired” waterways. 

Also on the water board’s 196-page list of impaired waterways is Clear Lake, parts of the Feather River, 10 miles of the Salinas River, parts of Sonoma Creek and small stretches of coast in Santa Barbara County which Hanna-Beth Jackson will represent should she win in November. 

Hearings on the regulations continue: December 8 in Mariposa, December 9 in Grass Valley, December 10 in Susanville and, early next year, Bishop. 


Filed under: State Agencies

No Comments »

No comments yet.

RSS feed for comments on this post.

Leave a comment