California Pushes for More Wastewater Reuse Options

California pushes for more wastewater reuse options.

In 2017, California Gov. Jerry Brown signed a bill to set up a framework for direct potable reuse of wastewater. Now California is at the beginning of another push on water use, as state Sen. Scott Wiener, D-San Francisco, introduced Senate Bill 966 to change state rules about the nonpotable reuse of wastewater.

An analysis of the bill by legislative staff says the State Water Resources Control Board is now required to establish standards where the protection of public health is involved. The bill would order the board to adopt risk-based regulations for onsite treatment and nonpotable reuse by 2022. Those uses could be in commercial buildings or multifamily housing.

And the regulations would have to be adopted by local units of government if they establish nonpotable reuse programs. Graywater systems used only for subsurface irrigation would be exempt because they are regulated by a different part of California law.

Because of a lack of state permit standards, local governments are often hindered in their ability to create programs for the reuse of graywater, black water, rainwater, and stormwater, Wiener says in a press release.

“California is so far behind on water recycling, and we must take aggressive steps to catch up. Yet, due to a lack of state standards on how to permit onsite water reuse systems, most cities don’t even have an onsite recycling program. SB 966 gives cities the tools they need to put water recycling programs in place, and the bill gives innovative water reuse businesses clear standards for designing new technologies. Climate change is already impacting our state, and we need action today to prepare for tomorrow’s drought,” Wiener says in the release.

Meantime there is action on large-scale reuse. Earlier this year, the city of San Francisco was scheduled to break ground on a water recycling plant that will treat about 1.6 million gpd of wastewater and send it to irrigate the 1,000-acre Golden Gate Park and two city golf courses.

Steven Ritchie, assistant general manager for the city water division, tells the San Francisco Chronicle: “What we’re really trying to focus on is getting the right water for the right uses. This is the first serious use of wastewater by San Franciscans for irrigation in decades.”

In an extreme example of onsite reuse, Salesforce, a maker of customer relations software, is building a 1,070-foot-high headquarters building in downtown San Francisco that will include a water system to reuse rooftop rainwater, cooling tower water, graywater and black water. Recycled water will be used for cooling the building, flushing toilets and drip irrigation. According to the company, the system will cut potable water consumption by 76 percent, saving up to 30,000 gpd.


Cesspools are common across the Hawaiian Islands, and when a report found that the community of Makawao is one of the high-priority areas for system upgrades, 250 residents turned out at a state meeting to vent their outrage about a new state law that bans all cesspools by 2050.

Makawao is in the Upcountry region of Maui, and untreated wastewater is beginning to affect drinking water wells. State Health Department investigators found significantly elevated nitrate levels in groundwater downhill from cesspools, reports The Maui News. The Health Department report, expected to be published in about a month, says Upcountry has 7,400 cesspools that are potential threats to drinking water.

Almost all of the Upcountry residents who attended the meeting of the state Health Department rejected the idea of updating their wastewater systems. They say they do not have money for upgrades, and they questioned the validity of the state report. Will Spence, the county Planning Department director who spoke as a citizen, says he estimates it will cost residents about $300 million to eliminate cesspools.

Resident Rod Taylor designs septic systems and says properties in the area do not have enough space for a standard system. “If we can design it on paper, the equipment operators can’t put it in,” Taylor says. “We actually were able to design one in Makawao on paper and got it permitted, and the equipment operators did a heck of a job. But it cost $70,000.”

New York

Cesspools will be completely banned in Suffolk County on Long Island under a new law. Although new cesspools have been prohibited since 1973, the county has allowed the replacement of an existing cesspool with another. That will end in July 2019.

Beginning this summer, contractors must notify the county Department of Health Services of all pumping and replacements or retrofits of septic tanks, alternative onsite systems, cesspools, and grease traps, reports The East Hampton Star. Starting next July, a department permit will be required to replace or retrofit a cesspool or onsite wastewater system. More than 360,000 residences in the county have outdated cesspools or systems that do not properly treat wastewater and remove nitrogen.

Businesses are required to install nitrogen-reducing systems if they have a grandfathered wastewater system and make significant changes to the use of the property.

A county press release says the law is the first step in an anticipated series of changes over the next several years as officials consider policies to reduce water pollution.

New Jersey

The state Legislature had been edging toward repealing a rule allowing for a greater septic tank density, and thus more development, in the northern part of the state. In January, lawmakers voted to repeal the rule.

Adopted in 2017, the rule would have allowed 1,100 more septic systems on 69,000 acres of protected land in the Highlands. This 880,000-acre region of northern New Jersey was created with the Highlands Act that said the land was an essential source of drinking water for half of the state’s population and said protection of the area was necessary for the economic viability of the region’s communities.

The repeal narrowly passed the state Senate and Assembly. Although the state constitution gives the Legislature power to block new rules, that authority has been used only once in recent years.


Ravalli County must pay $13,380 in legal fees that a couple spent fighting county allegations of sanitation rule violations.

The case began in 2015 when the local Board of Health said Tim and Elaine Burt had too many connections on their onsite wastewater system, and it overflowed. At the time, the Burts had four rental units on their property: two structures and two trailers, reports the Ravalli Republic. In August 2016, the couple negotiated an agreement to resolve the allegations, but the Burts refused to sign because the agreement had a clause requiring them to admit to violating wastewater regulations.

That led Ravalli County to file thousands of criminal counts against them based on the number of days they were allegedly in violation, although the county also admitted in court filings that the couple had corrected all problems. The Burts sued, claiming “prosecutorial vindictiveness.” Two judges sided with them.

The first judge, in Justice Court, said trying the cases would be a waste of time and tax money. When the county appealed to District Court, the judge there wrote in his opinion that while there wasn’t enough evidence to prove vindictiveness, there was a settlement in place and it should have been followed. He dismissed the criminal counts “with prejudice,” meaning the county cannot refile them.

The Burts said they spent more than $20,000 defending themselves against the county. The District Court judge ordered the county to pay legal costs minus $8,400 that the couple had previously agreed to pay the county.

The county said it would appeal to the state Supreme Court.


A man from rural Tahlequah was accused of operating a septic business without a license.

Percy Sellers was charged in Cherokee County District Court with five counts of pumping without a license, one count of engaging in a pattern of criminal offenses, and one count of engaging in transactions involving unlawful proceeds, reports the Tulsa World. Pumping without a license is a misdemeanor, and the other two charges are felonies.

The Oklahoma Department of Environmental Quality said Sellers operated his business for several months in 2017 without having a proper license and received repeated warnings to stop. If convicted, Sellers faces up to six months in jail and a $10,000 fine for each of the misdemeanors and up to two years in prison and a $25,000 fine for each felony.


Some residents who upgrade their onsite systems may get a break on state fees under legislation proposed by Gov. Larry Hogan.

If people upgrade their onsite systems with more advanced technology to reduce the amounts of nitrogen, phosphorus and other pollutants seeping into groundwater, they would be exempt from the annual $60 fee that funds cleanup efforts for Chesapeake Bay, reports The Baltimore Sun. Hogan’s proposed law would exempt any resident from the fee, called the “flush tax,” as long as they did not receive any state or federal assistance to upgrade their wastewater systems.

It was not clear how many people would benefit from Hogan’s proposal.

In 2016, Hogan repealed a requirement of former Gov. Martin O’Malley that would have required advanced technology onsite systems everywhere in Maryland. Instead, Hogan allowed counties to decide what systems to use on properties outside environmentally critical areas.

Elaine Lutz, a staff attorney for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, which handles the money from the flush tax, questioned why fees should be waived even for people in environmentally sensitive areas where upgrades are required.

“We typically don’t subsidize people for doing what they’re required to do,” Lutz says. “It’s not really a time or a place to be reducing the amount of money and effort going into septic pollution reduction.”

The most recent numbers available, for 2014, show the foundation paid out about $80 million in flush tax money for septic upgrades. Hogan’s bill would also reduce the amount of money devoted to septic projects. About 60 percent of receipts were used on system upgrades. The other 40 percent, about $58 million in 2014, paid for farmers to plant cover crops that reduce offseason fertilizer runoff. Hogan would split the tax money evenly between the two uses. 


Santa Rosa police arrested a man on suspicion of illegally dumping waste from septic tanks.

Carlos Chavez, 63, of Petaluma is suspected of pumping out tanks and dumping the septage into sewers throughout the county, reports the news website He was arrested on suspicion of theft or diversion of utilities, malicious dumping into a sewer, and prohibited septic waste disposal. Chavez owned Petaluma Septic Service.

Police Sgt. Marcus Sprague says evidence indicates Chavez dumped illegally for years, including on 300 occasions in 2017. Sprague says Chavez has a previous conviction in Sonoma County (where Santa Rosa is located) for illegal dumping.

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Proposed rules for onsite wastewater systems have raised some opposition over the cost for residents in Monterey County. The county Environmental Health Bureau has released the regulations it is proposing to meet state requirements.

The county’s draft regulations would not affect existing systems that function properly. But anyone seeking to install, expand, or replace an onsite system would be required to conduct a more thorough site evaluation including groundwater monitor borings, a soil profile analysis, and a percolation test. An alternative technology or supplemental septic system would be required for shallow or slowly percolating soils, for properties of less than 1 acre, or for systems within 100 feet of a waterway, reports the Monterey Herald. The depth of dispersal systems would be limited, and pumpers would have to report when they pump a tank.

Jain Farnsworth, president of the Quail homeowners association, says she has warned other association members about the potential costs involved. Most of the association homes have septic systems on lots of less than 1 acre. She says she replaced her own system in 2017 to avoid the potential additional cost of the new regulations. The $20,000 she paid would have been more than double under the draft regulations, Farnsworth says.


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