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Photograph by Curtis Cartier
Been There, Cleaned That: John Ricker, water resources director for Santa Cruz County's Environmental Health Services Department, says the county has been battling leaky septic tanks since the 1980s.

Pit Storm

California's planned crackdown on septic systems has Santa Cruz County officials and homeowners in a froth.

By Jessica Lussenhop

A near-universal cry of disapproval rose up from the mountain burgs and vacation homes of California after a draft of new statewide regulations on septic systems was released by the State Water Resources Control Board in January--so much so that the state extended the public comment period until Feb. 23. But while homeowners are calling the new rules an affront to their rights as property owners, regulators at the county level have been left scratching their heads as to where the state came up with its new guidelines.

"This is a shotgun approach to a more specific problem. It's going to cost residents and cost the counties," says Santa Cruz County water resources division director John Ricker. "It assumes most septic systems don't work well. Our opinion is, if they're monitored they actually help to recycle wastewater."

Sonoma County Board of Supervisors chairman Paul Kelley sounded a more irritable note in a letter to the State Water Resources Control Board, pointing out that the state isn't differentiating between responsible homeowners and bad actors.

"The proposed standards will impose significant additional regulatory requirements, and associated costs, on owners of all [septic systems] regardless of past performance, rather than focusing on those systems that actually contribute to water quality impairment."

The debacle started in the hallowed washrooms of Malibu in the late '90s, where a community of the privileged and famous fought fiercely to keep off a new sewer system they argued would promote growth and sprawl. Meanwhile, beneath their well-shod feet, septic systems were leaking fecal matter into the Pacific, eventually leading to bacterial contamination in popular local beaches.

William Rukeyser, a spokesman for the State Water Resources Control Board, says small communities ballooning in size are the reason that the state needs to take action.

"It's obvious that California has changed an awful lot in the last 70 to 90 years," he says. "There's a huge difference between having a small cabin with a few people a month compared to a full-size house with full family that lives there year round."

The Malibu incident prompted passage of a state law in 1999 ordering the implementation of better septic system regulations. The new rules, called A.B. 885, were written in Sacramento and are, according to officials in several Bay Area counties, out of touch with proper septic system regulations.

Though historically Santa Cruz County has had trouble with fecal matter in the San Lorenzo River, and septic system leakage has been suspected as the cause of high nitrate levels in the water in the San Martin area of Santa Clara County, environmental health regulators in those communities and in Sonoma County universally agree that the current regulatory arrangement--partnerships between the counties and one of nine regional water quality control boards--has been adequate.

"We've been taking care of the problem in our county since probably the mid-'80s," says Ricker.

Humphrey Karioki, the environmental health program manager in Santa Clara County, agrees that the current setup is more than adequate in places like rural Los Gatos and the southern parts of the county.

"The concept is not a bad idea, but [not] when they are so prescriptive, giving specific standards rather than broad guidelines," he says. "It's best handled on a regional level much more close to the areas."

The new regulations apply to the installation and maintenance of the septic systems, but critics say that within that framework they are at times too strict, and then too lenient, according to county regulators. Among the contentious issues is a $325 inspection once every five years, which Rukeyser argues is a "tiny fraction of what sewers are costing every month." County officials argue an inspection once every five years is in many scenarios an expensive overkill, especially when homeowners are already struggling in dark financial times. Another rule, which determines how large a leach field needs to be, uses less information than the counties currently do.

Though the reaction has been mostly negative, engineer Charles Reed of the Water Quality Control Board's North Coast Region, which oversees Sonoma County's septic systems, says that the basic idea is a good one.

"A really important part of a properly functioning system is if it's maintained, and putting those sort of requirements in regulation is a pretty good idea," he says. He says uniformity is lacking in the current setup.

For example, Santa Cruz County has an official Memorandum or Understanding with its regional water board with specific guidelines similar to the state's proposed regulations, while other counties do not. And Rukeyser says that the state has to get involved in order to prevent another Malibu-type incident, and that the rules are a good thing, even if they need modification.

"If you've got a malfunctioning septic tank uphill, the contamination is going to end up in somebody's water glass on the dining table," he says.

The extended public comment has allowed officials in all three counties to submit letters and attend meetings, and the county regulators now have to wait to find out if their suggestions are taken seriously.

"Their staff has consistently said, 'Well, septic systems don't function that well.' I don't see the scientific information there," says Ricker. "I do think we have a better grasp of how to manage systems in our area than the state does."

For more information on the proposed rules, see Submit comments by email to [email protected]; the deadline is Monday, Feb. 23.

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