Water Woes are a Critical Issue for California Pumping and Onsite Professionals

California pumpers and installers take the ‘waste’ out of wastewater in their organization’s name to promote solutions to the state’s ongoing water crisis.
Water Woes are a Critical Issue for California Pumping and Onsite Professionals
Mark Adams can be reached at 530/893-1600 ext. 205, or madams@cowa.org.

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California is running out of water, and the state’s onsite wastewater industry is poised to be a part of the long-term solution. Mark Adams is looking forward to the challenge as the president of COWA. While using the same acronym, the group has dropped the word “waste” from its name. Now the California Onsite Water Association, it is looking more broadly at the issue of reusing and conserving water.

While much of the West has seen abnormally dry weather for several years, California is in the midst of a four-year drought called the worst since recordkeeping began in the 1800s. The state declared a drought emergency in January 2014 and has since instituted many water-use regulations, and all communities have been ordered to reduce use by at least 25 percent.

The new direction for COWA comes as the man with a vision of a broader focus retires from the organization. Kit Rosefield was the face of the group for the last seven years as the lead trainer and coordinator of education and training. His wife, Evelyn, who was responsible for the day-to-day operation of the group, has also retired. Filling the void with Adams is Nick Weigel, who takes on the lead trainer role as well as administration and treasurer.

A recent poll found that water and the drought are considered the most important issues in the state by 39 percent of people, and 69 percent say water supply is a big problem in their area. Water must be a daily topic of conversation in California.

Adams: You have no idea. There’s really a driving force to look at all aspects of water, not just wastewater. A few years ago, Kit and I spent a lot of time brainstorming about the future and came to the conclusion that as an organization and representatives of an industry, we need to look beyond wastewater.

We represent about 200 designers, installers, pumpers, regulators and service providers. Now, the membership is starting to come from the other aspects of water. You can take a lot of the same tools we use for wastewater and apply them to graywater and stormwater to reuse, reclaim, restore – keeping water on the site and getting it back into the soil.

How is that changing COWA?

Adams: We’re trying to integrate with other people like the graywater crowd. They made terrific inroads in Sacramento (the state capital) so we’re trying to combine our efforts so we can effect some change to the regulations.

COWA and Occidental Arts and Ecology Center co-hosted the Localizing California Waters Conference last November. Our two organizations have supported the formation of the Decentralized Water Policy Council (DWPC) with experts in all aspects of water including county regulators, academia and stakeholders across the state to increase the ability to reuse and conserve water with effective, integrated water management. There are policy groups addressing graywater, rain and stormwater, black water, and a group looking at things like composting toilets. Each is putting together a white paper talking about where things are now and making recommendations on how we can move ahead to most effectively change policy in each area. We will put those into an action plan to take to the regulators. You can find out more by visiting oaec.org/water/why-california-is-localizing-its-water.

California has had graywater regulations since the 1990s, but nobody took advantage of them because they were so tough. About six years ago there was an effort to loosen them, but the regulators said it wasn’t safe. An inventory showed that there were just a few hundred permitted graywater systems but estimated that there could be as many as a million actual graywater systems in use. They couldn’t find any health hazard, so the state decided that maybe it wasn’t a problem and updated the rules. Now systems are going in all over the place.

COWA believes these graywater systems are just as important as the black water systems and should be designed, installed, maintained and monitored as long-term components of our infrastructure. This is where COWA plays an important role, providing educational opportunities related to these aspects of decentralized infrastructure.

But any beneficial reuse of wastewater has to comply with Title 22, which requires daily water samples and lab testing. You can do it at the municipal level but very rarely can we afford that at the decentralized level. It’s one of the few places in the world that requires it, so we’re trying to show that technology has improved so there are other ways to monitor effectiveness of the treatment systems.

Updating policies could save up to 14 million acre-feet per year. That’s 35 percent of annual water use in California and the equivalent of the water used by all of California’s cities in a year.

We have 58 counties, throw in all the regional water-quality control boards and a few other agencies – they all have their unique rules and regulations. Water is getting very, very expensive in California, and some agencies are spending 10 times what they spent a few years ago for water. So there are definitely areas where it becomes economical to save every drop possible and reuse it. We’re trying to get some consistency that would allow us to put in systems that take advantage of all the water on a site.

Do you have an example of what that might look like?

Adams: We’re working with a school in a pretty arid region. They need a lot of water for the buildings and the land, and have an onsite treatment system. They aren’t taking advantage of the effluent and are pulling water from a local creek and the watershed. If we take a holistic look, we can capture rainwater, reuse the wastewater and modify the landscape to lessen the need for water. The result can be that we can put water back into the stream that supports an endangered fish species. The school is really excited about it and wants to integrate it into its curriculum for students.

How is this affecting pumpers?

Adams: Not a whole lot; they’re being affected more on where and how they can dispose of septage. There are fewer locations and the regulations are getting more restrictive, the cost is going up, and they’re having to haul grease farther. A lot of pumpers are also system evaluators, so they are benefiting from some areas requiring systems to be evaluated at time of sale and tanks assessed on a more regular basis. Some communities now have operation permits for systems, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see more of that, which will be an advantage to the pumpers.

How is this affecting installers?

Adams: It should open up new opportunities for our installers. The skills and technology for graywater reuse, black water treatment and reuse, rainwater catchment, dispersal to the site, etc., are all very similar to those that our installers have already mastered.

Is this as daunting as it sounds?

Adams: No kidding. We have a bill going through our state Legislature right now to make it easier to reuse graywater within a building. It’s a six-month to one-year process just to make that one little change – and nobody opposes it.

Do you think California will end up, as it often does, as the trendsetter in water reuse?

Adams: We’re seeing some leadership come out of individual communities, which is really interesting because it will impact the decentralized wastewater world. But there is some leadership coming from centralized water. The City of San Francisco is looking to mandate that all new construction be required to treat and reuse wastewater for things like toilet or urinal flushing. Our Department of Transportation has a pilot project testing the feasibility of this at a rest area. So we have a couple of larger agencies that are pretty inspired to start pushing the envelope. These are examples of decentralized technology in a very urban environment.

COWA is trying to represent a lot more people. Membership, a lot of times, is driven by a requirement for continuing education and training, and that’s what we’ve provided for the state. That’s why COWA started: We were convinced there was a lack of education about decentralized water and that better decisions could be made if education was provided. That’s still what we’re trying to do as an organization. The state has come to us for advice because they realize we know more about how to run these systems.

For me personally, it’s a pretty exciting time. I like to think about the future and brainstorm and try to visualize ideal outcomes. We’re really ripe for change here.

So I think California could be leading the nation and showing how we can do this safely and effectively. We have to.


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