Time Running Out for Failing Septic Systems

by Jacqueline Chen

An agreement between the La Cañada Flintridge City Public Works Department and the Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control Board, signed in December of 2004, has held the various regulatory bodies at bay while the city finds ways for residents to take care of problems with their septic systems.

Under terms of the agreement, the city's Public Works Department takes charge of ensuring the city's waste water is properly disposed of. As signed, the memorandum is valid for five years, but time may be running out for homeowners with malfunctioning or failed systems.

Current regulations adopted by the Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control Board (RWQCB) require owners of onsite wastewater treatment systems to apply for a permit whenever a system is built or replaced, or when major repairs are made to an existing one. Owners are required to immediately stop using and repair failed systems that discharge to the surface.

"It's the job of the Regional Water Quality Control Board to protect the ground water," said Steve Castellanos, La Cañada Flintridge's director of public works. "When our memo of understanding runs out in 2009, they're going to want an inventory of where the septic systems are, and what condition they're in."

Last month, the State Water Regional Control Board (SWRCB) proposed a more stringent set of rules that, if adopted, will require that the city of La Cañada Flintridge rigorously enforce the new standards. The new regulations require that the city ensures all septic systems are working properly, do periodic tests of groundwater quality, submit the results of those tests to the RWQCB, and keep records of activity associated with septic systems, including the tank pumping.

They also require extensive soil studies, a detailed construction plan, specifications that the septic tank and seepage pits have to meet, and comprehensive documentation of the entire project. Prior to a sale, the property owner has to provide the buyer with documentation from a RWQCB-approved contractor, certifying that the system is in good working order. The proposal is now undergoing the various required processes, including public comment, environmental and safety studies, before the regulations' adoption.

"The Water Quality Control Board is going to start testing the water along the Los Angeles River, and trace any pollutants upstream," said Castellanos. "They're going to find where the nitrates are, and the County is going to find us. If I see (a failing septic system) or my staff sees it, we'll have to turn them over to the Health Department."

Human sewage is a major contributor to nitrates in groundwater. When septic systems drain too close to the water table, pollutants percolate down into the groundwater where they may contaminate drinking water supplies. Liquids discharged on to the surface by failed systems are often carried through flood channels out to the sea, where they affect marine life. Inland, drinking water that contains high nitrate levels can cause a variety of health problems to which the young and the elderly are particularly susceptible.

Richard Wagener, director for Bureau of Environmental Protection, Los Angeles County Health Department, elaborated on the issue of water pollution:

"Where ground water is being impaired, the Regional Water Board can take action," Wagener said. "They can require measures to remove this impairment. A total maximum daily load can be calculated and dischargers that contribute to the excess, the impairment, must take action to ensure their contribution stops."

In the text of the SWRCB proposed regulations, homeowners with failed septic systems will not only be required to immediately stop using them, they may also have to pay administrative penalties and citations.

When the discussion turned to sewers, Wagener said he was not aware of any communities in the greater Los Angeles area that used any of the alternative sewer systems presented during last Thursday's meeting hosted by La Cañadans for Affordable Sewers.

"Any plan would have to be reviewed," he said, "and acceptability depends on many different factors."

He also said that alternative sewers would receive the same amount of scrutiny as traditional gravity systems. The project must be acceptable to some municipal body that would have to maintain it, and to the plant that would ultimately process the sewage.

Wagener also summarized the biggest problem posed by onsite wastewater treatment systems. "Septic systems at some point invariably need to be replaced, and in some areas, regulations will make the replacement very expensive," he said. "At some point, home owners may run out of land on which to put the new system. The issue impacts our way of life, our quality of life, property values, and health."

Readers who would like to find out more about existing regulations as well as the new proposals can go to www.swrcb.ca.gov.

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