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Commentary: Water board to consider new approach on septic systems

Issue Date: April 27, 2011
By Danny Merkley
Rural residents have helped convince the state water board to consider a new approach in regulating septic systems. More comments from rural Californians will be needed to assure the board adopts the approach.
Danny Merkley

Responding to the concerns of rural residents, the State Water Resources Control Board will begin next week to roll out a new approach to regulate Onsite Wastewater Treatment Systems, commonly referred to as septic systems or septic tanks. 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.

Now—in large part because of comments from groups representing rural residents, including Farm Bureau and its members—the board appears ready to focus its regulations primarily on those septic systems that are most likely to threaten water quality. But we're not at the finish line, and your comments will be needed to assure that the final regulations take this new, more reasonable approach.

Here's what has happened so far. Assembly Bill 885 by Hannah-Beth Jackson, D-Santa Barbara, became law in 2000, requiring the state water board to adopt "regulations" or "standards" for permitting and operating onsite sewage treatment systems. The board drafted its proposed regulations three years ago and held more than a dozen public workshops statewide. In response to public comment about the sweeping nature of the original proposal, the board directed staff to redraft the regulations. Farm Bureau has been actively engaged throughout the process.

The new, draft regulations should be released this summer. In preparation for that, the state water board will take public comment during scoping meetings on what needs to be analyzed in an environmental document required by the California Environmental Quality Act.

Two public scoping meetings are planned next week to take comment on what's called the policy scoping document:

• Monday, May 2, at 1 p.m. in the Byron Sher Auditorium at the Joe Serna Jr. Cal/EPA Building, 1001 I St., Sacramento

• Thursday, May 5, at 1 p.m. in the Riverside County Supervisors Chambers at the County Administration Center, 4080 Lemon St., Riverside.

According to the state water board, more than 95 percent of current septic system owners covered by the policy are expected to experience little or no change in the manner in which their systems are regulated. If a property owner's septic system is currently in good operating condition, and it is not near a stream, river or lake that the state has identified as polluted with bacteria and/or nitrogen-related compounds, then this proposed policy would have little or no effect on that property owner.

Owners of existing septic systems adjacent to a surface water body that exceeds quality standards for bacteria or nitrogen compounds, someone installing a new or replacement septic system, and owners of an existing system that has failed, may have to retrofit the septic system with supplemental treatment.

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

This proposed policy takes a very different approach than the draft regulations we saw in 2008. The new proposed policy takes a risk-based approach, addressing only those systems that threaten water sources serving the general public. It also now relies extensively on local county and city programs currently in place to regulate septic systems.

The water board has created a website where you can find the most current information regarding development of the new proposed policy:

From this site, you can review the "Proposed Policy Scoping Document"—where the key Framework portion may be viewed on Pages 11 through 14—and a fact sheet. You can also subscribe to an email list to receive updates on septic-system issues.

Your comments have helped the water board in developing this new regulatory approach. Farm Bureau will continue to remain actively engaged and to communicate with staff and with water board members throughout this process. We also encourage Farm Bureau members who think they might be affected to stay informed and participate.

(Danny Merkley is director of water resources for the California Farm Bureau Federation. He may be reached at

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

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