Water board holds meetings on new septic system rules

Issue Date: May 11, 2011
By Steve Adler

A new approach to regulating onsite wastewater treatment systems, commonly referred to as septic systems, took another step last week as the State Water Resources Control Board held scoping meetings in Sacramento and Riverside.

"It's a very different approach from the one the water board originally proposed in 2008, which would have placed new burdens on every owner of a septic system," said Danny Merkley, California Farm Bureau Federation water resources director. "The direction the board is now taking is entirely different from what we saw in the previous proposal."

He noted that at the Sacramento meeting, one attendee asked, "You mean to say that you actually listened to us in 2009 and adjusted your proposal accordingly?" Board staff replied, "Yes," Merkley reported.

The regulations as originally proposed stated that property owners would have had to have their septic tanks inspected for solids accumulations every five years by a qualified service provider, at an estimated cost of $325. If the property owner had a private well, it also would have to be tested every five years for a list of possible contaminants.

"Now, from what I understand, if you have a properly functioning system and you are not next to an impaired water body that is impacted by what you are doing, then you don't need to change anything you are doing now. You don't need to pump your tank, you don't need to have it tested and you don't need to have your well tested," Merkley said.

Not everyone will escape scrutiny, however, Merkley said. Owners of existing septic systems adjacent to a surface water body that exceeds quality standards for bacteria or nitrogen compounds would have to go through an evaluation process to determine if their system is contributing to the water quality problem. If it is determined to be a significant source of pollution, supplemental treatment might be required. For someone installing a new or replacement septic system, there would be a minimum protection level established by the new policy and local agencies would either modify or show that their permitting programs meet this. Owners of an existing system that has failed would have to return it to working order, and might have to retrofit the septic system with supplemental treatment, depending on why the failure occurred.

Maps of water bodies impaired by bacteria (pathogens) or nitrogen compounds (nutrients) can be viewed on the water board website at www.waterboards.ca.gov/water_issues/programs/tmdl/integrated2010.shtml; go to the tab marked "Map" and then select the type of pollutant to view.

Farm Bureau has been closely following developments relating to these regulations and will continue to do so, Merkley said, adding that Farm Bureau will make comments once the new draft regulations are made public this summer.

"We would encourage others to look at this draft and comment in writing if they feel it is necessary," he said. "Right now, there is no meat on the bones for people to review and comment on specifics. That will come later this summer, and it is at that point people will want to pay attention to see how they could be affected at their specific location."

Once the actual draft or proposed regulations and policy documents are made public, the board will conduct four workshops, or more as necessary, later in the fall to take public comment, with 60 days for written public comment. The workshops have not yet been set, but will likely be held in Redding, Sacramento, Fresno and the Los Angeles Basin.

Merkley noted that the board has indicated a willingness to hold an additional workshop somewhere in the northernmost part of the state, if necessary.

"Based on the working relationship I have with the lead water board staff on this and the conversations that I've been having with them over the last year, I am anticipating that we will be much more pleased with the draft regulations this time, because they really did listen," he said.

(Steve Adler is associate editor of Ag Alert. He may be contacted at sadler@cfbf.com.)

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.