Septic happens
Tougher rules looming in Marin and statewide to reduce leaks and pollution

Ulysses Torassa, Chronicle Staff Writer

Friday, June 10, 2005

Kit Rosefield of the Septic Matters Project measures soli...

With the sun peeking out of the clouds on a recent weekday morning, Kit Rosefield and his assistant, Emilien Deschamps, got to work opening up two manhole-size covers on a Lagunitas homeowner's septic tank.

Along with some startled flies, the unmistakable odor of human waste wafted out. But Rosefield and Deschamps don't flinch -- it's all part of their job, inspecting some of the tens of thousands of on-site wastewater systems used mostly by rural property owners in the North Bay.

After putting this particular system through its paces -- measuring liquid levels with a sludge gauge, checking for leaks and clogs -- Rosefield declared it to be in good working order. That's great news for the homeowner, Sierra Salin, who purchased the home two years ago and recently heard he was eligible for a free septic inspection.

But many other septic systems in rural West Marin aren't functioning so well. And after spending more than a year providing free septic inspections to qualified Marin homeowners, Rosefield has seen plenty of leaking tanks, clogged drain fields and broken pipes. "There are a lot of problems out there, '' Rosefield said.

The free inspection program -- for Marin property owners within 100 feet of a waterway -- continues at least through March as part of the Septic Matters Project (, an outreach and education effort to county landowners with septic systems.

Because of a new mandate from the San Francisco Bay Regional Water Quality Board, Marin County is about to impose regulations on septic systems on property in the Tomales Bay watershed.

However, those rules, which would go into effect in 2009, may be overshadowed by more sweeping changes at the state level that would affect all septic systems in California, possibly requiring regular inspections and monitoring.

As it stands, California is one of only two states in the nation that doesn't have state regulations governing on-site wastewater systems (they are now under the jurisdiction of the various counties). State regulators have struggled for five years to come up with a set of rules to help protect groundwater from malfunctioning systems.

But those proposed state rules are being strongly opposed by counties, Realtors, environmental health directors and others who say they are too broad and unenforceable. The outcome of the controversy remains to be seen.

At the same time, technology is promising to provide more and better solutions to getting rid of wastewater on-site.

The rules set to be adopted this month by the San Francisco Bay Regional Water Quality Board apply only to property in the Tomales Bay watershed, which includes about 40 percent of Marin's roughly 7,000 septic systems. They require the county to come up with a program for reducing septic-system pollution into the bay by 2009. Just what that means for individual property owners remains to be seen.

"The county is going to have to come up with the methodology for doing that,'' said Rebecca Tuden of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency assigned to the San Francisco Regional Water Quality Board and to Marin County's Department of Environmental Health. "They could do time-of-sale (inspections), they could do regular inspections every two years, they could do mandatory reporting by (septic tank) pumpers. What the regional board is saying is, 'You guys come up with your own best approach.' ''

In one step toward trying to meet regulators' demands, Marin County is putting together a community septic system in Marshall on the east side of Tomales Bay that will serve 30 homes initially. An earlier survey of the area had found that 24 percent of the systems there were failing and 16 percent were marginal.

It's the kind of solution that might work well for other parts of West Marin, with distinct communities coming together to run their own septic districts, Tuden said.

Another aspect of Marin's effort to promote better functioning septic systems is the free and anonymous septic-inspection program that Rosefield runs as an independent contractor on behalf of the county. The anonymity of the program is crucial because the county has had a history of conflicts with West Marin residents over unpermitted buildings and nonstandard septic systems.

Although a new regime is trying to change that, suspicions persist that if an inspector comes on their property they will be cited for violations, according to Phil Smith, chief of the county's division of Environmental Health Services.

As a result, the county is trying a gentler approach, which includes the free inspections, as well as a series of "septic socials,'' in which Rosefield holds evening lectures with refreshments on various aspects of septic systems. More recently, the county received a donation of recycled-content toilet paper to distribute to homes, along with brochures and other material about how to keep septic systems in good working order.

It's a far cry from the more adversarial atmosphere that appears to be shaping up over proposed statewide regulations. The current draft requires property owners to have their systems inspected at least every five years or at the time of sale. Those within 600 feet of an "impaired" waterway -- that includes the Tomales Bay watershed and parts of the Russian River -- would have to install systems that meet a higher standard for the treatment of effluent. Such advanced treatment systems are costly, said Phil Smith, chief of Marin's division of Environmental Health Services.

"That's an expensive proposition. You could be talking $40,000 to $60,000, '' Smith said.

"I think what's happened is you have people developing regulations who don't deal with septic systems on a day-to-day basis,'' said Randy Leach, manager of the well and septic division of Sonoma County's Permit and Resource Management Department. Sonoma County already has a monitoring program in place for the approximately 2,000 nonstandard systems installed in areas where soil conditions aren't optimal. He estimates there are 35,000 to 37,000 septic systems in the largely rural county.

Napa County has good record keeping only for the past 19 years, said Jill Pahl, assistant director of the county's Department of Environmental Management. She estimates there are 7,000 to 10,000 septic systems in Napa County. They, too, have a monitoring program for nonstandard systems, and Pahl said the low rate of repairs indicates that things are working pretty well as they stand.

But Liz Kanter of the California Water Board said studies have shown that septic tanks have polluted groundwater in some areas of the state.

"We know there is a problem,'' she said.

Septic systems can fail for a number of reasons. One is simply age. In the North Bay, many older homes have simple tanks made of redwood, which are known to leak, draining out to deeply dug leach fields that may allow poorly treated effluent to reach the groundwater.

Still, newer systems can fail if they aren't treated and maintained properly, Rosefield said.

One of the worst things a homeowner can do is use too much water, which can overload the system. Another problem he sees: people putting solid matter down their drains, such as vegetable scraps, personal-care products -- even diapers.

That's why he's not a fan of garbage disposals, and personally wipes off his dishes and pans with a paper towel before cleaning them in the sink or dishwasher.

Warning signs of a problem include sinks and toilets with slow drains, gurgling sounds in the plumbing, sewage odors in the house or yard and grass growing faster and greener in one particular area of the yard. They don't always signal a septic problem, but they are worth investigation.

Meanwhile, progress continues to be made in developing new technologies for septic systems that promise less pollution, less cost and can be installed in smaller spaces.

Marin County is allowing some of the new technologies, such as textile filters to house microorganisms that can naturally clean effluent before it is disbursed, in some situations.

Other companies are developing new ways of constructing leach fields that use less space, and strainers that keep solid material out of drain fields, prolonging their life.

Smith said many of the new approaches promise to make it easier for property owners to deal with the new, stricter regulations in the pipeline.

"It's not a static situation -- both the technology is changing and the regulations are changing to reflect that, and there is more science being done all the time,'' he said.

Disposing waste

How a typical septic tank works

1 Wastewater, a polite term for sewage, from toilets, baths and sinks flows into a septic tank.

2 A septic tank holds the wastewater allowing solids to settle as sludge. Lighter liquids like oil float to the top as scum. Wastewater remains in the middle. Baffles at the inlet and outlet allow only the separated wastewater to flow out.

3 A drainfield takes the wastewater and allows it to leach into the ground where bacteria decompose the sewage. Disease-causing organisms, organic matter and most nutrients are removed. The clarified wastewater moves downward into the groundwater or is evaporated from the soil.

Buildup of scum and sludge are removed every 2-5 years

Distribution box channels wastewater into perforated pipes

Gravity allows sewage to flow from house to tank

John Blanchard / The Chronicle

Source: Chronicle research

E-mail Ulysses Torassa at

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