California Moves Toward Toilet-to-Tap Wastewater Recycling

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Because it contains 12 percent of the country’s people, California sets standards in many ways. Now, it will work on a standard for potable use of recycled water. Gov. Jerry Brown has signed AB 574, which directs state agencies to develop regulations for direct potable reuse of recycled water by blending it with raw water in the pipes leading into a water filtration plant.

Under the new law, by 2021, the California State Water Resources Control Board must adopt uniform criteria for augmenting raw water with recycled water, and it requires the board to establish a framework for the regulation of potable reuse projects by June 1. The law builds on a previous one that directed the water board to establish rules for recharging groundwater and adding recycled water to a reservoir. At the same time, the law prohibits the board from adopting criteria if its expert advisory panel determines there would be a threat to public health.

Supporters of the law pointed out the need for California to develop alternative sources of water to serve its population in the face of recurring droughts.

“California is a world leader in potable reuse, using highly purified recycled water for drinking-water purposes. The use of recycled water for nonpotable uses, such as agricultural and landscape irrigation, is already well-established and has been regulated for decades in California,” says Rep. Bill Quirk, D-Hayward, who introduced the bill in the Assembly.

This year, the city of San Diego announced plans for a multiyear and multibillion-dollar project to add recycled water to its reservoirs. The first phase is now being designed. When completed in 2021, it will produce 30 mgd. The second and third phases are projected to be in place by 2035 and will produce an additional 53 mgd. The total 83 mgd will be about one-third of the city’s water supply. Currently, the city imports about 85 percent of its water supply from the Colorado River and the river delta that feeds San Francisco Bay.

Some San Diego wastewater will be recycled for nonpotable uses such as irrigation. The rest will be sent to reservoirs but first will go through another water purification plant using ozone, biological activated carbon, membranes, reverse osmosis and UV equipment.

South Dakota

After two years and a five-hour trial, a county official was found guilty of violating county zoning rules for operating an onsite wastewater system without an operating permit. The ordinance requires systems to be regularly pumped, inspected and issued permits. When the trial was over, the judge ordered Pennington County Commissioner George Ferebee to pay a $200 fine. The prosecution says Ferebee was in violation because his system was on a lot smaller than 40 acres. Lots of that size and larger are exempt from the ordinance. Ferebee claimed his land totals 250 acres and that he hasn’t subdivided it since buying it 30 years ago. But, prosecutors say the land is legally comprised of four lots and say Ferebee’s system is on a lot of 12.22 acres.


Although it will be more expensive, the Fort Wayne Plan Commission insisted that a new Dollar General store connect to municipal sewer. During a public hearing in September a representative of the Zaremba Group, an Ohio-based development company, said the cost of extending the municipal sewer by 370 feet to reach the property would exceed the cost of an onsite system by 150 percent. The company asked for a waiver from the requirement for municipal sewer, according to the Journal Gazette. The planning staff rejected the suggestion of a waiver. It said the city’s zoning ordinances and comprehensive plan say municipal sewer is the preferred option and that allowing this exemption could set a precedent for future commercial projects. The zoning commission agreed with the staff report and denied the waiver.


After a lengthy examination of onsite systems, it appears they are not to blame for pollution in about 25 lakes in Todd County in central Minnesota. The county is about 124 miles northwest of the Minneapolis-St. Paul area and has 118 lakes. The septic system inventory cost almost $812,000 and included five grants from the Minnesota Board of Water and Soil Resources, says information from that agency and printed in The Osakis Review of Alexandria, Minnesota.

Inventories targeted phosphorus-sensitive lakes. Less than 5 percent of systems on 2,329 properties were out of compliance during the examination that lasted from 2011 through 2016. Test results on another 12 percent of properties were still pending while 83 percent were in compliance. “Lake Osakis is polluted — 7,000 acres of pea soup,” says Chris Arens, Todd County land use planner. “The thought was that one of the large contributors to that was the septic systems around the lake because it’s highly developed.”
But, the inventory showed otherwise, and in one case, it killed an idea to build a large wastewater-collection pipe around one lake. In Todd County, an onsite system inspection is triggered by a property sale or a building permit, but the inventory convinced some people to willingly upgrade their onsite systems.


For a second time in a year, the Harford County Council is considering legislation to relax rules on what can be built near onsite wastewater systems. The county is about 36 miles northeast of Baltimore and includes shoreline along Chesapeake Bay. The legislation would remove a ban on the construction of swimming pools, outbuildings, driveways or additions that intrude into the area designated for the onsite system. This could mean the drainfield or land reserved for a replacement, reports The Baltimore Sun. The county health department would be empowered to grant waivers to the rule at its discretion, and the department supports the legislation.

“We have looked at the impact to public health, the environment, and in certain situations we feel that it would be OK for a waiver to be given and to allow paving over a system and their future repair areas,” Julie Mackert, director of environmental health, said during a public hearing in September.

In the 1970s, the county tightened regulations for onsite systems, but in recent years, a succession of administrations and county councils have relaxed those rules, saying they infringed on property rights.


Support is building for point-of-sale inspections of onsite systems in central Michigan. It’s part of a plan to reduce bacteria levels in the Chippewa River, which flows for about 90 miles and joins other rivers that drain into Lake Huron. Most recently, the city of Mount Pleasant agreed to the point-of-sale inspection rule proposed by the Central Michigan District Health Department. The rule must be approved by commissions governing all six counties in the health department district and would impact a small number of properties. A transaction tax of $300 to $500 would be imposed at the time of the inspection. A local real estate agent calls this a money grab by the health department. He says real estate agents always recommend an inspection at the time of sale and says the rule would do nothing to improve the water quality of the river.

In Leelanau County in northwestern Michigan there is no rule specifying when a septic system must be inspected, and with county commissioners opposed to one, the responsibility has fallen to citizens. So, the county’s League of Women Voters scheduled a panel to inform citizens about onsite wastewater systems and how they should be maintained. County commissioners voted down an attempt to form a committee that would have looked at onsite system issues with the possibility of enacting a point-of-sale rule. Tom Fountain, director of the Benzie-Leelanau District Health Department, says he is worried about vacation rental homes that are often occupied by more people than the onsite system is designed to handle. One commissioner says real estate agents, not the county, should take on the responsibility of ensuring inspections.


The county that voted to repeal a fee for onsite wastewater systems has backtracked a bit. Thurston County, which surrounds the capital city of Olympia and borders the southern end of Puget Sound, had enacted a $10 fee to fund management of onsite systems. The fee became a campaign issue, and last year two county commissioners were seated who opposed the fee. It would have affected about 42,000 property owners.

Now the fee is back, but not all the way. The county commission unanimously approved fees for onsite systems in the Henderson Inlet Shellfish Protection District. Revenue will fund the district’s work plan for onsite systems. From 1984 to 2005, the state health department restricted shellfish harvests in the inlet because of contamination by fecal coliform bacteria. There will be a $10 charge for each additional residential onsite system on a property, and there are higher rates for larger, nonresidential systems. On average, most property owners will pay $40, although some will pay $100 or more, reports The Olympian. About 6,700 onsite systems will be affected by the ordinance.


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