Final draft eases impact of septic tank regulations

Issue Date: April 11, 2012
By Steve Adler
Download PDF (157 KB)

In a significant reversal of an earlier proposal, the State Water Resources Control Board staff has recommended that, with few exceptions, rural residents who have working septic tank systems on their property need take no further action other than routine maintenance, until it is time for replacement, upgrade or the system fails.

Regulations originally proposed in 2008 would have required property owners to have septic systems inspected for solids accumulations every five years, at an estimated cost of $325. If the property owner had a private well, it also would have had to be tested every five years for a list of possible contaminants.

The 2008 proposal brought a storm of protests from rural residents throughout the state. Since that time, the proposed regulations have undergone a number of revisions, each one making the requirements less stringent on rural homeowners.

At a workshop at water board headquarters in Sacramento last week, staff went over the provisions of the new plan with about two dozen attendees, most affiliated with groups and associations that represent rural landowners. One of those was Danny Merkley, California Farm Bureau Federation water resources director, who has been working with the water board on revisions to the plan since the original proposal was issued.

"This final draft has improved with each version. It's not perfect, but most of our members will be much happier with it," Merkley said. "If you have a properly functioning system that is not next to an impaired water body that is affected by your septic system, then 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."

To make sure you have a properly functioning system, he said, it's a good idea to have it checked regularly.

The water board proposal resulted from Assembly Bill 885, which became law in 2000. AB 885 required the state water board to adopt "regulations" or "standards" for permitting and operating onsite wastewater treatment systems—the state's term for septic tanks and leach fields.

The current proposal, which water board staff called a final draft release, was issued on March 20 and will be on the agenda of a state water board hearing in Sacramento on May 2. Written comments will be accepted until May 4 and the final plan is scheduled for adoption on June 19.

The purpose of the proposal, according to water board staff, is to allow the continued use of onsite wastewater treatment systems, while protecting water quality and public health.

"To accomplish this purpose," the proposal says, "this Policy establishes a statewide, risk-based, tiered approach for the regulation and management of OWTS installations and replacements and sets the level of performance and protection expected from OWTS."

The plan has five tiers, numbered from zero to four. Existing systems that are in good working order fall within Tier 0, with one notable exception: New and existing septic systems associated with specifically identified impaired water bodies and septic-polluted surface waters fall within Tier 3. That means they must comply with a local agency implementation program or TMDL, which stands for Total Maximum Daily Load as adopted by the regional water board for that location.

Rural residents who wish to find out whether their property falls within a Tier 3 location may do so by using a tool on the water board website:

Tiers 1 and 2 establish minimum standards for septic systems that have not yet been installed or need to be replaced and which are not located within 600 feet of an impaired water body.

Tier 4 comes into play if an existing septic system fails or is found to be polluting groundwater or surface water to a degree that affects its drinkability or other beneficial uses. These systems must be modified or upgraded to meet either Tier 1, 2 or 3 requirements, as appropriate for the components being repaired.

More details on the tiers is available at

The state water board estimates that there are more than 1.2 million systems in California, the vast majority functioning in a satisfactory manner and meeting their intended purpose.

Written comments on the final draft must be received by 12 noon on May 4 and addressed to: Jeanine Townsend, Clerk of the Board, State Water Resources Control Board, 1001 I St., 24th Floor, Sacramento, CA 95814. Comments may be sent via email at; the board asked that people write "Comment Letter, OWTS Policy" in the Subject line.

(Steve Adler is associate editor of Ag Alert. He may be contacted at

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