Encouraging Reconstruction After Wildfires

Coming back from devastating wildfires, a California county wants to hasten onsite system permit approvals and allow more granny pods.

Encouraging Reconstruction After Wildfires

Jim Kneiszel

It’s difficult to find a silver lining in the wildfires that swept through Sonoma County, California, last fall. Some 250 fires burned 245,000 acres. Including the devastating Tubbs and Atlas fires that caused a reported $9.4 billion in insured damage, the fires killed 44 people and destroyed nearly 9,000 structures.

As the popular Northern California wine country faces a huge recovery and repopulation challenge, local lawmakers are looking for ways to rebuild more efficiently, and some of the ideas should be of interest to onsite installers and their customers.

The first challenge is getting residents who lost their homes back on their properties quickly. To that end, the Sonoma County Planning Commission is proposing ways to pick up the pace of permit approvals, including those relating to onsite wastewater projects. That’s a worthy goal not only for fire-stricken regions, but in all areas where hurdles to repairing and maintaining septic systems are an issue.

Another goal of planners is to remove roadblocks to adding “granny pods,” small second homes typically aimed at caring for an older member of the family. These dwellings allow multigenerational families to live together and will hopefully bring down the cost of housing and health care for the elderly. This is an idea that goes back to farming communities 100 years ago, where families often built more than one home on a residential property.


The wine country north and east of San Francisco is a desirable place to live. The weather is nearly perfect. The proximity to the Bay Area is optimal. The rolling hills, the vineyards and the wine lure many to the region. We could talk about the pattern of wildfires and the wisdom of building homes where drought conditions can create a tinderbox. But we won’t stem the tide of some degree of development in spite of the fire threat. People want to live here and it’s going to happen.

In a desire to best serve their customers, the decentralized wastewater industry across the country will monitor how California rebuilds these areas and may be able to promote some progressive ideas. Streamlining approvals for repairing and rebuilding onsite systems would be a welcome change for many pumpers and installers. You may see this as a need in your area as well, as users need to alter their systems to meet changing family needs.

Homeowners don’t like to jump through more hoops or face delays when it comes to their septic systems. Of course, you want to see the environment protected with any upgrades, but more efficient permit approvals help everyone involved in these projects. And you would hope these changes would be coupled with stronger requirements for pumping and maintenance to ensure systems last longer and don’t taint the groundwater.

A story in the Sonoma Index-Tribune pointed out that allowing more and larger granny pods — as well as allowing larger dwellings in general — will spur growth necessary to keep the wine country economy growing. Among the changes, county supervisors raised the maximum size of granny pods on properties of at least 2 acres from 1,000 to 1,200 square feet. Secondary dwellings will also be allowed for 1-acre properties and will be limited to 640 square feet or smaller. The county estimates the changes may allow for more than 1,000 new dwellings.

“Let’s allow for the maximum amount of flexibility,” says Shirley Zane, supervisor, in the newspaper report. “I want people to be able to live here again and rebuild, and I just think that we need to be able to find incentives.”


The success of onsite systems serving both a main house and a granny pod will depend on careful planning for daily wastewater flow and other factors, such as more concentrated use of medications for older family members living in these homes. So say experts Jim Anderson, Ph.D., Pumper’s Septic System Answer Man writer, and David Gustafson, P.E., of the University of Minnesota. They wrote about this topic in our sister publication, Onsite Installer, earlier this year.

The pair say the first task is making sure the lot can support the necessary drainfield and meet setback requirements. Next is to consider a system or multiple systems that would meet the estimated daily sewage flow. For example, they noted that a one-bedroom granny pod may have an estimated flow of 180 gpd and require a 500- to 1,000-gallon septic tank.

With a suitable design for the granny pod, a monitoring and pumping plan must be developed to account for demands on these specialized systems. Occupants may be taking several strong medications or receive chemotherapy treatments, and strong cleaning supplies and chemicals may be used on a regular basis. Talk to your customers, and if they are going into this type of situation with a family member, consider changing their septic service plan accordingly.

Sonoma County is forward-thinking for looking at ways to more practically redevelop land after the fire devastation. It’s encouraging that officials want to promote adding to the tax base, speeding up permit approvals and better serving families as they resettle.

I personally think we should do anything we can to encourage families to stick together, and for sons, daughters, and grandchildren to care for their elderly parents and grandparents. And do it right at home if they can. I suspect the tightknit pumper community — so many of these businesses run by multigenerational families — would agree.


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