Rural counties bristle at septic regs

Chris Caskey, The Union Democrat

The state of California could move forward next month on new regulations for septic sewage systems, but not without some pushback from area agencies.

The State Water Resources Control Board recently released a final draft of its policy on septic systems, also known as onsite water treatment systems. The policy would set up new rules and procedures for installing, maintaining and replacing private septic systems around the state in an attempt to prevent contamination of surface and groundwater.

The new septic regulations are required by Assembly Bill 885, a state law passed in 2000 to prevent state waterways from being contaminated by septic systems.

The regulations allow local control over managing septic systems and also include some funding for low-interest loans to property owners who need help to meet the new requirements. Both of those provisions were added since the original draft, which was released in 2008 and criticized by many agencies as being overreaching.

According to the water board, 98 percent of the state's septic systems will not need to make any changes as a result of the new policy. However, some municipal agencies, including Tuolumne County, are still concerned about negative impacts the regulations could have on property owners even with the recent changes.

"The statewide wastewater regulations contained in (this policy) are much improved from the previous versions. Nonetheless, they are costly, overly burdensome to local implementing agencies and property owners, and not demonstrated to be needed in Tuolumne County," states a letter to the water board signed by county Board of Supervisors Chairman Dick Pland and approved earlier this month by the entire board.

In the letter, the county takes exception to a handful of regulations in the draft policy:

• A requirement in some situations that properties with septic systems have a density of less than one unit per 2.5 acres.

• A stipulation that a "slope stability" study be required for standard systems to be replaced or installed on a natural slope of more than 30 percent.

• The inclusion of Woods Creek as an impaired body of water, which adds tighter septic restrictions to properties near the creek. A previous draft of the rules included Sullivan Creek, but it was removed in the latest draft.

• Electronic reporting requirements for the local agencies that would be responsible for enforcing the regulations.

In the letter, the board also states the June 19 deadline set for adoption of the policy is "premature," and also states that regional water quality boards will have the ability to enact even more-stringent rules.

Rob Kostlivy, Tuolumne County's environmental health director, said last week that last factor is one of the county's biggest issues with the plan. He said local agencies will turn in their own septic regulations, and there are worries the state could use the strictest rules as a baseline for everyone.

"One of the main concerns is the unknown," he said last week.

Tuolumne County isn't the only critic of the latest draft. Last week, representatives with the Regional Council of Rural Counties commented on the draft during a public hearing. Nate Beason, a vice-chairman with the council and a member of the Nevada County Board of Supervisors, said he appreciates the state water board updated the regulations in response to concerns raised after the 2008 draft.

"However, counties remain very concerned about the proposed process they and homeowners would have to go through to get approval for their projects and programs," Beason said during the hearing.

The Union Democrat
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